Packaged foods often include a printed calendar date that is identified by the words Sell By, Use By, or Best Used By. Consumers often imagine that these dates are a legal requirement, but in reality, only baby formula has any such federally mandated requirements for dating food. In all other cases, these dates are simply "suggestions" from manufacturers as to a time frame for experiencing the best quality from the product. These dates can be confusing or misleading if not fully understood. Cautious consumers may feel that there are severe health dangers if they consume products past these printed dates. Or skeptical consumers might believe that these dates simply exist as a form of built-in obsolescence, coaxing consumers into discarding products so they will buy more. The reality is somewhere in between.
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 for several days—up to a week or two—after this date, but they may begin to lose flavor or visual appeal. To keep quality goods on the shelf, retailers usually pull items that are past their "Sell-By" dates. 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 you should buy the product before that date expires and consume it within a short time after the date passes.
"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. According to the USDA, this date is not a "purchase-by" date, nor is it an official safety date.
What it means for you: The product is generally safe to eat within a reasonable time after the "Best-By" date—often up to a week or so. Use your judgment as to whether you want to consume it or use it in a recipe. A food that looks and smells fresh and is just a few days beyond its "Best-By" date is normally safe.
"Use-By" dates are determined by the manufacturer and are a suggestion for when the food item will be at its best quality. It should be regarded as a somewhat more forceful suggestion than the "Best-By" date. The "Use-By" date is more critical for refrigerated foods, which will deteriorate faster than non-refrigerated items. Canned food is generally safe if consumed past this date, but may have deteriorated somewhat in flavor, texture, or appearance.
What it means for you: The USDA recommends using a refrigerated product by the "Use-By" date. Discard refrigerated items after they pass this 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 these 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.