Understanding the Dates on Our Food

Monday, January 17, 2011


“Sell By”, “Use By”, “Best By”, “Expiration”, our food is labeled with multiple and sometimes confusing dates. But, what’s behind them? What do they mean? Simply put, they are the date which signals when a carton of milk, bag of lettuce or pack of chicken may be the best-tasting or safest to use. What it doesn’t do is concretely indicate that the item is past its prime or spoiled.

It’s a Matter of Time: We all know that dairy products, raw meat, even packaged foods won’t stay fresh forever. The dates on their packages are suggestions set by government food safety experts and manufacturers regarding the freshness of their product. But, how strict are they. Well – it doesn’t mean that an item spoils on the date indicated. After all food items can’t read. It does let you know that it should be used soon or frozen for later use.

Sell By: This date deals more with food quality than food safety. Food companies use this date to indicate the last day a product should be sold. It also helps guide the store with rotating their stock. The product is still fresh enough to be stored and used at home.

Use By/Best By: As with “Sell By”, this date has nothing to do with food safety. Instead, it is the manufacturer’s recommendation of the date after which the product is no longer at its “peak” for flavor or quality. Many of these products can also be frozen for later use.

Expiration: Most food items, except for baby food, don’t require an expiration date. Most states do mandate that milk and other perishables not be sold after their expiration date. It is not recommended that “expired” foods be consumed. But, if they have been frozen or processed in some way, they could be just fine.

Armed with a clear understanding, many of these dates can be a savvy shopper’s friend, because many retailers drastically discount items that are near or at their “date”. With an eye on preserving, consumers can save a great deal of money shopping “sale” food items.

My local grocery stores have clearance sections in the meat and dairy isles, and I have found some great bargains. I’ve purchased family packs of pork chops for a few dollars and just last week I bought a package of beef short ribs (normally $6.50) for $2.50. The trick is to use them up in a short time frame or wrap them for the freezer. Either way it’s money in your pocket and a hearty meal on your table.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Next Generation Food

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