Confused by Use-by/Sell-by Dates?

Unless your sense of smell is on vacation, it’s pretty clear when you stick your nose into a quart of milk if it’s still safe to drink. But as the 48 million estimated cases of food poisoning every year attest, smell and taste are not good indicators of whether or not a food is safe to eat.

Sometimes, the guides that are supposed to help us determine when to eat and when to toss food are confusing. The Institute of Food Technologists has addressed the problem by explaining the differences among food expiration terms.

  • Use by: Food bearing this label offers the date by which the product should be eaten for the best quality, not necessarily because if you eat it later it will make you sick. Safety might be reduced after this date, but quality definitely will be.
  • Sell by: Food bearing this label tells retailers the date by which the product should be sold or removed from the shelves. It doesn’t indicate that the product is unsafe to consume later than the date, because typically one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date. If you don’t intend to use the product soon after purchase, you probably should opt for one with a later sell-by date if the one you’re considering is soon.
  • Best by: Food bearing this label suggests to the consumer on which date the product should be consumed to assure best quality. In other words, it’s similar to a “use-by” date.

For more information about food safety, see our blogs on the topic.

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