The Difference Between ‘Sell By,’ ‘Best Before’ And ‘Use By’ Dates: Here’s What They Really Mean

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A recent study published by the journal Waste Management revealed something disturbing. Their survey of 1000 people showed how labels such as “best by,” or “use by,” caused significant confusion around how long certain foods are safe to eat.

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Americans are throwing away totally edible food just because they don’t understand what “best by” and “use by” actually mean. Labels like these are not required by any federal law. Food companies use these labels, voluntarily, to guide both the consumer and retailers as to food freshness.

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The labels have nothing to do with food safety. The only time the USDA requires a label is if the food is “dangerous” to consume after a certain date. Yet, 84% of consumers have, at least sometimes, tossed food that is close to the date stamped on the package.

“Best by” means that the food is freshest and tastiest right at, or before, the indicated date. “Sell by” is for grocers’ use in managing sales and displays. “Use by” is the last date for consumption before the product’s quality and taste begin to decline.

None of them have anything to do with safety.

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So, just because an item has reached or even passed whatever date is stamped on the package, that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw it out. The best way to determine if your food is spoiled is to smell it first – something your grandparents could have told you easily. Food that has been properly stored is nearly always safe until spoilage bacteria makes it smell or changes the taste or texture. You can protect yourself from E. coli and salmonella by cooking food to USDA recommended temperatures.

The only exception is baby formula and baby food. The expiration dates on these products are hard dates, and they should not be used after the date has passed.

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Freezing food is a great way to keep food way past their use-by dates. Also, canned food and shelf-stable food can potentially keep forever. Taste may deteriorate over time, but it can be consumed safely (again, unless it smells). Leftovers should be eaten or discarded within four days.

Wasting food is bad for your wallet and the planet, and becoming informed about food storage will keep good, wholesome food out of the garbage can.

Bottom line: no need to take those dates so literally.