What do expiration date labels on food really mean?

  • USDA says dates are not an indicator of product safety
  • Only infant formula must, under federal law, be dated
  • Find out what commonly used food phrases really mean (it’s probably not what you think)

Grocery expiration labels can be intimidating, especially for dairy products and meats.

Manufacturers give their best estimate of when food will reach its peak quality with phrases such as “best before”, “use by” and “sell by”.

But, officially, the USDA says the dates don’t indicate product safety. Only infant formula is required by federal law to be dated.

“Date labels generally indicate when foods will be at their peak freshness,” said Nina Sevilla, an advocate for the food waste program. Natural Resources Defense Council. “If you have food a few days after that date, that probably means you can still eat it.”

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Nevertheless, dozens of different date labels cause enough confusion to convince people to throw food away too soon, contributing to staggering waste. About 40% of food marked for consumption in the United States is not eaten.

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Sevilla said the best way to tell if your food has gone bad is through your senses.

“In most cases, your body has a natural, unpleasant reaction to the taste or smell of spoiled food,” she said. “Our reaction to spoiled food is evolutionary. We have honed our senses to protect ourselves from ingesting things that could hurt us.”

To reduce unnecessary waste, the NRDC is federal call to action to standardize food date labels. In the meantime, here’s how to decipher what you might find at the grocery store, as well as how to press pause when ripening with your freezer.

What Commonly Used Food Phrases Mean

  • “Best if used by/before” When the food is deemed to be at its best in flavor or quality. This is not a security date.
  • “Sell by” This tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. This is not a security date.
  • “Use by” This is the latest recommended date for using the product at full quality. It is not a date safe except when used on infant formula.
  • “Freeze by” This indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain optimum quality. This is not a security date.

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