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What Best-By, Use-By and Sell-By Dates Really Mean

Many people get rid of food even though it is still fine because they don't know how to interpret the best-by, use-by and sell-by date. In this article, we explore what they are and how you can use them to determine what needs to go to avoid food wastage.

By Cookist

If you’re like most people, you try to avoid wasting food but sometimes aren’t sure which foods never expire and which foods you should never eat past the expiration date.

It is easy to get confused and a lot of people do but that's mostly because those dates have no standardized meaning.

According to Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, “There is no national law in the U.S. regulating date labels on products."

“Instead, date-labeling laws and regulations in the U.S. differ from state to state. And, further, most states do not define these terms.”

Even for those states that require date labels on certain food products, how to determine those dates is left to the manufacturers.

In summary, Emily believes that the labels have no meaning legally but that does not make them any less important.


Indeed, expiration-date confusion can have serious consequences. Almost 40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted annually, and a big contributor to this is confusion over date labels.

About 85% of Americans report that they throw away food after its use-by or sell-by date as they believe that consuming it after the date can make them sick.

However the truth is that manufacturers usually base these labels on quality rather than food safety.

There are two types of food dates that you may find on your food:

“Closed” dates are a series of letters and/or numbers that manufacturers use to identify the batch, date and location of manufacturing, and other data about that product. These usually appear on shelf-stable products.
“Open” dates appear on most foods, including meat, poultry, eggs, bread and dairy products. They include the best-by, sell-by and use-by dates.

Best-by date


“Best by,” “best if used by” and “best if used before” are labels that manufacturers use to show when a product will have the best flavor or quality.

It typically put on perishable products with a limited shelf life, like, bread, salads and eggs.

Note that it is not a purchase or safety date, so it’s safe to eat food even when this date has passed. Unfortunately, how long you have until your food goes bad after that is a trickier question.

This is thought to depend entirely on the type of food; how it was packaged, transported and stored; and how it has been handled since purchase.

Sell-by date

The sell-by date tells the store how long to display the product for sale which makes it useful for inventory management. This label can be found on bakery items, meat, seafood, deli items and snack foods.

It is also unrelated to food safety which means your food is perfectly safe to consume even after its sell-by date. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Except for use-by dates, product dates don’t always refer to home storage and use after purchase.”


Use-by date

This date tells you when to consume a food if you want it at peak quality.

It is essentially what the manufacturer says is the last date you can use a product before quality starts to decline. It is similar to the “best if used by” date since it doesn’t relate to the safety of the food, with one important exception — infant formula.

Freeze-by date

This label tells you when you should freeze a product to maintain peak quality. You’ll often see it on fresh items that can be frozen.

As long as the food doesn’t show signs of spoilage, you can eat food past this date.

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