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What do the ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ ‘best by’ labels on food really mean?


If you are confused by those dates on food – sell by, use by, best by – don’t worry, the government is here  to help.

No, really.

New legislation moving through Congress aims to establish a national standard for dates on food labels. The goal is to make the labeling more clear so consumers can know when a certain product would lose it quality vs. when it should be thrown out.

Here’s a quick look at what the dates mean and how they could change.

What do the dates mean?

When you see the terms  “sell by,” “best if used by” and “use by” on food packaging, know one thing – those dates refer to the food’s quality, not its safety.


From the United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service:

“Sell-By:”  This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

“Best if Used By (or Before):” This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

“Use-By:” This date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

Are all food products required to have a ‘use-by’ date?

Only on infant formula is required to have a date on it. By federal law, manufacturers of infant formula must include a “use-by” date on their product. According to the regulation, “If consumed by that date, the formula or food must contain not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label. Formula must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple,” the FDA says.

The “use-by” date is selected by the manufacturer. The FDA warns consumers not to use baby formula that is past its “use by” date.

Is it safe to eat the food once it gets past all those dates?

Most foods are just fine to eat past the date that is printed  on the package. The USDA recommends for safety reasons you eat the food before it’s “Use by” or “Best if used by” date. If there is a “sell by date” on the food, you have a limited time to eat it before it spoils – for instance, milk which usually goes  “bad” about a week after the “sell by” date.

Click here to check the USDA product dating page

The sniff test.

We’ve all done it – opened the milk, took a sniff and declared, “This smell’s bad.  Try it.”  Well, there’s something to our sense of smell when it comes to food spoilage.  The USDA recommends that you throw out anything that appears  to be spoiled  or has a smell that is “off.” It’s not worth the chance. Also, if you have a can that is dented – or, worse, bloated – do not eat what’s inside.

What would the new legislation do?

The legislation would attempt to make clear on the label when the item is at its peak quality and the date after when it should not be eaten.

“Items at the grocery store are stamped with a jumble of arbitrary food date labels that are not based on safety or science,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said in a statement. “This dizzying patchwork confuses consumers, results in food waste, and prevents good food from being donated to those who need it most.”

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