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April 2021

Understanding Use & Sell By Dates on Food

Many food products have date labels, but what do they really mean?  If you are confused, you’re not alone!  It should not be surprising, considering the variety of phrases on packaged food products, such as “use before”, “sell-by”, “expires on” and many more. As a result of uncertainty regarding these dates, it is estimated that approximately 20% of food is wasted in the home.   Industry and government have been working to reduce product date label consumer confusion.   Let’s take a closer look at these labels to see what they really mean, how they relate to food and if it is safe to eat. 

Product Date Label Basics
Food manufacturers voluntarily use product date labels at their own discretion. The dates are the manufacturers estimate as to how long a product retains its best quality when stored properly.  These dates are related to food quality and are not a measure of food safety.  The product may be good past this date if it was handled correctly.  Labeling includes:

  • “Sell-By” – Refers to how long the store can display the product.  Used by manufacturer for product rotation.
  • “Best if Used By” – The date the product is at optimal quality and taste. If it does not exhibit signs of spoilage and was stored properly it can be consumed beyond this date.  This labeling is encouraged by the USDA & supported by the FDA.
  • “Use-By” – This applies to perishable products that should be used by the date on the package or frozen. The FDA is not endorsing “use-by” labeling due to unnecessary food waste. Instead, they are promoting consumer food safety education. 

Time to Toss?
Follow the “Best if Used By” dates for freshness and quality.   Keep in mind the dates no longer apply once the package has been opened.

The way foods are stored can extend or shorten the shelf-life. Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods immediately.  The refrigerator temperature should be 38-40°F and the freezer below 0°F.

Refrigerated foods generally are good for 3-7 days, although condiments and hard cheeses will last longer.  Here are some more shelf-life guidelines:

Freezing is an option to extend the shelf-life of perishable foods.  If it has freezer burn, is unlabeled or has been in the freezer more than six-months, toss it out!  In the refrigerator:

Leftovers   2-3 days
Soups & Stews   3-4 days
Opened lunch meats   3-5 days
Shell Eggs   3 weeks
Raw Poultry/Meat/Fish   1-2 days
Cooked Eggs   7 days
Cooked Poultry/Meat/Fish   3-4 days

For additional food storage guidelines, contact the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1.888.674.6854.  Another option is a free app developed by the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, “Is My Food Safe?”. This app provides storage guidelines along with food safety information.


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