What ‘Sell By’ and ‘Use By’ Dates on Food Really Mean

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At least 90 percent of Americans throw out food each year because they don't understand the meaning of dates stamped on packages. Here is how to stay safe.

Are you one of the millions of Americans tossing hundreds of dollars in the trash each year?

Probably so if you don’t understand those “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” labels stamped on groceries you buy.

A report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the vast majority of Americans misinterpret food labels and throw out perfectly good food.

By understanding some simple terms, you can keep that money in your pocket, rather than toss it in the trash can.

‘Sell by’ date

If you throw out food based on the “sell by” date, you are not alone. The study found that more than 90 percent of consumers make that mistake. Yet keeping food past that date does not mean it’s unsafe.

In reality, the “sell by” date is used by manufacturers to let grocery stores know they should not sell food past that date simply to ensure it still has some shelf life remaining after a consumer purchases it, according to the report.

‘Best before’ date and ‘use by’ date

“Best before” and “use by” dates don’t mean you should toss that food away. Those labels typically indicate the manufacturer’s estimate of when the food will be past its peak for quality. But that doesn’t mean the food is unsafe, the report says.

There is no standard that establishes those dates. Laws vary by state, and manufacturers have their own rules for setting dates. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped in to address the confusion.

Infant formula is the only product for which the date on the label is federally regulated.

Staying safe

Given the confusion over dates, you are probably wondering how long you can safely keep food without jeopardizing your family’s health — or your own pocketbook.

The federal government gives you good starting points. At FoodSafety.gov, you’ll find recommended refrigerator and freezer storage times for various meat products.

Most meats can be safely stored in the refrigerator for a few days and in the freezer for a few months. But the site points out that freezer storage guidelines are only for quality, and that foods can stay safely frozen indefinitely.

You’ll find more in-depth information on food safety and the limits of labeling on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website.

Those eggs you bought last week can be safely refrigerated for three to five weeks. And who knew that shelf-stable canned meat and poultry is still good after two to five years?

The Whole Foods Market website has helpful information on storing dairy products and cheese. Storage times vary greatly, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding what to buy. Opened butter, for example, will last one to two weeks, while opened margarine will last four to six months.

On the Spice Islands site, you’ll find information on the shelf life of spices and herbs. Buying whole spices rather than ground spices is a better choice because they last longer.

And you’ll find safety and storage recommendations for nearly every product under the sun at StillTasty.com. Wonder how long you can keep that raw shrimp in the fridge or freezer, or whether that unopened package of spaghetti that got buried in the back of the pantry is still good? The answer is just a click away.

What guidelines do you use for determining how long food remains safe? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Stacy Johnson

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