What does the "sell by," "best by," or "use by" dates mean on food packages? While there are no federally-mandated requirements for dating food other than baby formula, many manufacturers label their food with a date to suggest a time frame for experiencing the best quality of the product. These dates can be confusing or misleading if not fully understood.
Many fresh or prepared foods are labeled with a "sell by" date as a guide for how long the item should be displayed for sale before quality deteriorates. Items are generally safe for consumption after this date, but may begin to lose flavor or visual appeal. To keep quality goods on the shelf, retailers will pull items that are past their "sell by" date. This date is chosen with the assumption that the consumer may store or consume the item for a few days after purchase.
What It Means for You: To ensure freshness and longevity of your food once it is at home, it is best not to purchase items that are past their "sell by" date. The USDA says to buy the product before that date expires.
"Best By" or "Best if Used Before" Dates
A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is a suggestion for when the food item will be at its best flavor or quality. The USDA says this date is not a purchase-by date or a safety date.
What It Means for You: The product is generally safe to eat within a reasonable time after the "Best-By" date. Use your judgment as to whether it's what you want to eat or use in a recipe.
"Use-By" dates are determined by the manufacturer. They are a suggestion for when the food item will be at its best quality. It is more critical for refrigerated foods, as they will deteriorate faster than non-refrigerated items. Canned food is generally safe if consumed past this date, but may have deteriorated in flavor, texture, or appearance.
What It Means for You: The USDA recommends using a refrigerated product by the "Use-By" date. For shelf-stable canned goods, use as soon as possible if the "Use-By" date has passed.
Can codes are a series of digits, numbers, or month abbreviations that are often found on canned goods. These time stamps are generally a reference to the date, time, and location of manufacture and should not be confused with expiration dates. "Sell-By" or "Best-By" dates may also be included on the can in addition to the can codes.
Safe Handling is Key
Even if a product is well within its sell-by or use-by date, it can become unsafe for consumption if handled or stored incorrectly. Make sure to keep refrigerated foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and keep the unrefrigerated time, such as during transport, to less than two hours.
Fresh meat or produce should be should be handled safely to prevent cross contamination from bacteria, which, if allowed to grow, can make any food unsafe regardless of how fresh it is. Dry goods should be kept away from heat and moisture to prevent the growth of bacteria, fungus, and mold.
If at any time your food takes on an off odor or appearance, the packaging begins to bulge, or is otherwise compromised, it is best to play it safe and avoid consumption. Not all bacteria responsible for food borne illness produce odors or visual evidence of their presence, so these clues should not be used exclusively to determine the safety of your food.