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

Woman looking at food
Photo by l i g h t p o e t / Shutterstock.com

We all see the labels stamped on the groceries we buy:

  • “Sell by”
  • “Use by”
  • “Best before”

But do you understand them? If not, you can easily and needlessly toss hundreds of dollars into the trash each year.

A few years ago, 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 hard-earned 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

So, 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. The government emphasizes 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 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.

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? Sound off in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Should You Hire a Service to Negotiate Your Cable and Other Bills?
Should You Hire a Service to Negotiate Your Cable and Other Bills?

Services like BillCutterz and BillFixers will negotiate your cable, internet, phone and other monthly bills in exchange for a share of the savings. I tried it: Here’s what happened.

This Is the Best Age to Buy Long-Term Care Insurance
This Is the Best Age to Buy Long-Term Care Insurance

If you wait too long to apply for coverage, you could be denied. So, when’s the sweet spot to apply?

5 Simple Steps to an Awesome Retirement
5 Simple Steps to an Awesome Retirement

The path to your dream retirement begins with these five steps. How many have you already taken?

10 Things That Really Are Free on Amazon
10 Things That Really Are Free on Amazon

These freebies are available to anyone — no Prime membership necessary.

How Baby Boomers Are Earning an Extra $573 a Month
How Baby Boomers Are Earning an Extra $573 a Month

In the gig economy, baby boomers are out-hustling their younger competition. You can cash in, too.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

How to Buy Gas At Costco Without a Membership
How to Buy Gas At Costco Without a Membership

The warehouse club often has some of the cheapest gas in town. Here’s how you can get it as a nonmember.

10 Things to Stop Buying If You Want a Clutter-Free Home
10 Things to Stop Buying If You Want a Clutter-Free Home

If you like to keep things simple, avoid these purchases.

A Simple Way to Silence Robocalls Today
A Simple Way to Silence Robocalls Today

A few steps can keep your phone from ringing when a spammer calls.

This Company Makes the Best Tires in America
This Company Makes the Best Tires in America

Driver satisfaction with tires is at an all-time high, but one brand stands out.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

Vacuums from this brand can last a half-century, if not longer — and they’re hot on the resale market.

This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance
This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance

One type of pain is especially associated with cognitive decline.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

This iconic dinnerware is prized for everyday use as well as reselling for profit.

Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?
Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?

Knowing when to claim can help you maximize benefits.

Medicare Will Not Cover These 6 Medical Costs
Medicare Will Not Cover These 6 Medical Costs

Don’t let these health care expenses catch you off guard in retirement.

8 Things You Should Always Buy on Amazon
8 Things You Should Always Buy on Amazon

The giant retailer shines when it comes to these things, from basics to hard-to-find specialty goods.

Beware This Hidden Ingredient in Rotisserie Chicken
Beware This Hidden Ingredient in Rotisserie Chicken

Something foul may lurk in those delicious, ready-to-eat birds.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

5 Ways to Fill Your Pantry With Free Food
5 Ways to Fill Your Pantry With Free Food

Anyone can take advantage of these resources.

5 States With the Worst Health Care for Retirees
5 States With the Worst Health Care for Retirees

All of these states are located in the same region of the nation.

7 Big Purchases You Should Never Make
7 Big Purchases You Should Never Make

Sometimes a big-ticket purchase is nothing more than a big waste of money.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

6 Reasons You Should Stop Hiding Cash at Home
6 Reasons You Should Stop Hiding Cash at Home

Stashing money around the house is anything but harmless.

5 Products You Should Never Buy Generic
5 Products You Should Never Buy Generic

Sometimes the brand-name version is clearly superior.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.