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

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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  • Journe

    I have bought meat whose package sell date was close, But Spoiled! Now , I tear open corner package & sniff it, & often find
    real smelly spoiled meat, usually cut up chicken pieces.
    i love steak, so when on sale, I stock up. DONT FREEZE IN MARKET PACKAGE, BUT USE GOOD OR DOUBLE FREEZER BAGGIES, & DATE WITH MARKER. True dont go bad if Frozen but if many many months, still good, but maybe Quality down.
    I then slice thin, saute with onion,gr peppers, mushrooms etc.
    Delicious in sub sandwich, over rice, or as is.

    • Nancy

      I’ve only been burned once by spoiled meat on the sell-by date. I haven’t had the nerve to open packages of meat for the sniff test, but I think I’ll do this at my local market where I have a good relationship. The butchers there are very accommodating. If I find a spoiled package, I’ll bring it to their attention.

  • LagunaLady27

    There should be one standard for all food. It should be a “throw it out” date. The reason there are so many confusing names, is so that people will throw out food that is perfectly good to eat, so manufacturers can sell more and make more money. In other words, it is greed. If manufacturers or the federal governmnet had any integrity, there would be one simple, accurate, non-confusing standard.

    • Jim Wiggins

      Even if it was a completely greed driven system the problem is too complex for a one-date fits all solution. How the product is handled, especially temperature, creates huge variability. I think what is a more likely solution is a smart indicator on the package that shows likely product condition. This doesn’t even address product that is contaminated in the plant prior packaging and shipment. For the time I think we need to rely on education and a fair portion of common sense. “drackip”, below, has given one rule of thumb which looks reasonable from a perspective of quality but probably has limited value in the safety question.

  • drackip

    Rule of Thumb – If it’s green , toss it . (Unless ,of course , it’s supposed to be green – Then the rule is – If it’s brown , toss it )

    • Robert Buchko

      Wish I had seen this rule of thumb before I drank that green milk this morning. I don’t feel so good…

      • drackip

        It’s not a good sign when you have to eat your milk instead of drinking it – Those lumps go down hard :)

    • Nancy

      And veggies that are a little limp and unappealing make excellent additions to the soup stock pot. I throw them in a freezer bag for the next batch.

  • This is helpful information. Thank you!

  • Carla Lantz

    Thank you for an interesting and helpful article. Would you be able to enlighten your readers on information regarding the due date/expiration date on over the counter medication and vitamins? I have read the expiration date is set by the manufacturers depending on their testing length. In other words if the manufacturer chooses to test the effectiveness for 1 year only that is the date they use. It is possible the products are effective after their date but the manufacturer doesn’t want to spend $ to test a product for effectiveness for say, 1.5 yrs. Consumers perceive it is “dangerous” to take an OTC after the expiration date.

    • Georgia Wessling

      Carla – this isn’t a top-notch answer, but I told an older doctor about the fact that expiration dates must absolutely be followed. After certain dates, some meds become stronger and some lose a lot of their strength. This old doctor (just 2 months ago) said, That is a bunch of crap! He didn’t go on and explain why it is crap. However, with meds I don’t usually have any sitting around for years. If I have prescriptions, I use it up as prescribed.

  • Back in the early 80’s, I worked with someone who lived in a schoolbus with his wife, young daughter, and infant son. The bus was parked inside the fence around the yard in which the business’ building stood. They spent very little on food, because he knew the schedule of the trucks that brought the refuge from the local grocers to the public landfill, which was always full of packaged food that was expired or close to it. The money they would have spent on food was added to the savings that they eventually used to buy a farm, to which they relocated.

  • Georgia Wessling

    I have used past the sell by, use by, best by dates and have had no ill effects and I am 78 years old. As one site said, there are only 2 fairly sure ways to see if food is okay – taste and smell. I often keep milk for 4-5 weeks past the sell by date and it is fine. I use a hint I read once that really works. When you open your milk, put a pinch of salt in it. I don’t know how it works, but it does. And, besides, if it is soured, just bake a cake, a sour milk cake. When I was young and mom wanted to make a sour milk cake, she just took reg. milk and added some vinegar. I need to look a recipe for that. It was luscious. A swollen can would also be something to double check. We have eaten home canned foods years after they were canned. Again, use the smell and taste test. I also have commercially canned foods that are now 4-5 years old and still usable. The only thing to watch for are the packages of noodle dinners. If it has packets of seasonings, open and smell them. I once didn’t and had to throw the whole dish out because the seasonings were so flat tasting. It is the seasonings that deteriorate the most.

    • If the can is swollen, don’t “double check” – just throw it out. This is a sign of botulism, which is VERY dangerous and can’t be detected by taste or smell. For a $1.99 can of soup, it’s just not worth the risk.

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