Food Safety

What's the Difference Between Sell By, Best By and Use By Dates on Food Labels?

Is food that is a few days past its “Sell By” date safe to consume?

Close up of a woman grocery shopping in supermarket. Holding a tin can and reading the nutrition label at the back
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Food labels such as “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” have long been confused for expiration dates on grocery products.

But, these dates don't actually indicate product safety. In fact, manufacturers have used labels "best by" or "sell by" to estimate when their products have reached peak quality. This confusion over labeling leads to consumers prematurely throwing away perfectly safe and nutritious food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30% of the food supply goes to waste annually, and a big part of that is due to misunderstanding labels.

There are no federal rules governing the food labels except for infant formula, which is required to have a "use by" date in the U.S. That means manufacturers are allowed to determine when their products will taste best.

The FDA has recommended that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods, based on surveys showing that consumers understand those phrases. However, the recommendation isn't mandatory, and consumers continue seeing variations, in some cases because of local regulations.

“Most people believe that if it says ‘sell by,' ‘best by' or ‘expiration,' you can’t eat any of them. That's not actually accurate," said Richard Lipsit, who owns a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, California, that specializes in discounted food.

Here's what each food label means and how to determine whether to toss that product or keep it : 

"Best by" Dates

Labels with phrases like “Best if Used by,” "Enjoy by" and "Fresh through" indicates when a product will be have the best flavor or quality. It is not an expiration date. The product can still be consumed after this date, but it may no longer meet the company's standard for freshness.

It’s difficult for manufacturers to pinpoint exactly how long foods will stay good, given variables like how long they sit on loading docks and how they’re stored in people’s homes.

Regardless, the USDA says most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods can last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents or swelling).  Packaged foods like cereal, pasta and cookies will also be safe past the "best by" date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor. 

If the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them.

"Sell by" Dates

The “Sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale and is useful for inventory management. Much like the "best by" date, it is not related to food safety and does not mean the food is spoiled.

Many food items can continue to be used or stored for a short amount of time past the purchase date.

Milk is generally good for at least five to seven days after its “Sell by” date, though exactly how long will depend on factors including proper storage in the refrigerator and pasteurization methods.

Another example is ground meat and poultry, which should be cooked or frozen one to two days past the purchase date. Eggs can stay good for up to three to five weeks past the "sell by" date if stored properly in a refrigerator. It is recommended to refrigerate eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door due to loss of coolness from repeated opening of the door.

However, if you are concerned about spoilage, the best test is with your nose. If the food product smells bad, it probably is bad.

"Use by" Dates

A “Use by” date is the last date recommended by the manufacture to use a product before peak quality starts to decline. Much like the "best by" date, it doesn't indicate food safety, except for when used on important product: infant formula. 

Baby formula consumed by this date ensures the formula contains nothing less than the quantity of each nutrient described on the label.

"Freeze by" Dates

A “Freeze by” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. 

Storage times for frozen meat can vary from one month to up to a year, depending on the type -- chicken, pork or beef -- from a quality perspective. But because freezing stops the clock on spoilage and prevents the growth of food poisoning bacteria, it is safe to eat no matter how long a food is frozen for.

Foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat. So if you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Use it to make chili or tacos. The seasonings and additional ingredients can make up for loss of flavor.

How to Know When Food Has Spoiled

Food safety experts generally recommend throwing out food at the first signs of spoilage. With mold, even a small fleck might be an indicator that there’s a lot more of it that you can’t see.

Spoiled foods will typically develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to growing bacteria. If a food has developed a bad smell or funky flavor or texture, it should not be eaten. 

An exception is for certain dense foods where mold has difficulty spreading. With hard cheeses, for instance, food safety experts say it’s fine to carve out a 1-inch chunk around the mold and eat the rest. If you’re not sure about when it’s safe to eat around mold, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a chart here.

Additionally, the USDA notes that not all spoilage is visible or smellable. A slab of raw chicken, for example, might look fresh but contain salmonella. To limit the chances of getting sick from such germs, regulators recommend safe cooking and handling practices.

Should you rinse raw poultry? Advice over the years has been conflicting. Even cooking legends Julia Child and Jacques Pepin disagreed, but a new study from the Department of Agriculture has a definitive answer: Don't do it! "The sink could be a source of cross contamination," warns the USDA's Dr. Mindy Brashears.

Most canned foods can be stored for two to five years, and high-acid foods like canned juices, tomatoes and pickles, can be stored for up to 18 months, according to the USDA. However, cans with dents, bulges or rust are a sign it is time to toss those products.

What exactly causes food spoilage? Tiny microorganisms such as molds, yeasts and bacteria can multiply — especially when food is not stored or handled properly. 

There are two types of bacteria: pathogenic, which causes food borne illness, and spoilage bacteria, which does not cause illness but makes food deteriorate and develop unpleasant characteristics such as an unappetizing taste or odor. 

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