Food Labels – Sell-By, Used-By & Best if Used By

Nearly half of America’s food gets thrown out each year — much of which is actually perfectly safe to eat — often because of passed sell-by dates.

Confusion over dates, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, leads 9 out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food.

There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States.  As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates.

Likewise, those “sell-by”, “use-by” and “best-if-used-by” dates that you see on food have nothing to do with food safety. They’re set by manufacturers, without federal oversight, and most often relate to what manufacturers feel is “peak” quality. The date label on food does not tell you if your food is safe to eat.

Furthermore, date labeling is only required in about 20 states (it’s mandatory in all 50 for infant formula), so sometimes your nose and eyes are the only tools you have to rely on. But if you store things properly, you can extend the life of most groceries by weeks after purchase—or indefinitely, if you freeze it.

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Food Label Phrases

You might think the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency responsible for food safety, would be overseeing food-expiration dates. It does not.

Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by Federal regulations. The FDA, in its own words, leaves date labels on food, except for infant formula, to “the discretion of the manufacturer.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat, poultry and some egg products, also says date labels are voluntary. It does call for specific wording on a label, if a manufacturer chooses to use one, such as “packing” date, sell-by date or use-before date. But the USDA never defines what those terms mean or how they should be determined. So according to the federal government, a date can be there, or not be there; and if it is there, the manufacturer can decide what it means without any further explanation for consumers.

Best if Used By/Best Before

“Best if Used By” or “Best Before” is a type of date you might find on a meat, poultry, or egg product label and indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Sell-by vs. Use-by

A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.

A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.

USDA Food Storage Guidance

Here’s USDA guidance on how long some common foods stay fresh when stored in the fridge (at 40 degrees Fahrenheit):

  • One to two days: Ground beef, ground poultry and poultry, liver, sausage
  • Three to five days: Beef, veal, pork and lamb
  • Five to seven days: Cured ham, uncooked
  • One to five years: Canned foods. If you keep your cans stashed in cool, dry places, you can store them for years in some cases. Any dated code on canned food is the date that the items were packaged, not a “use-by” reference for consumers, the USDA says. Using the date as a reference point, acidic foods like tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapples can last from 12 to 18 months, while less acidic foods like meat and vegetables last anywhere from two to five years, the agency says.
  • Three to five weeks: Eggs. Some states do require sell-by or expiration dates on egg cartons by law, but they’re not federally required. If you see a date, you’ll definitely want to buy the eggs before they expire, but you can actually store them in your fridge for three to five weeks.
  • Two weeks: Hot dogs, sandwich or deli meat, hot dogs unopened; five to seven days if opened.