What does “Sell By”, “Use By” and “Best By” mean, anyway?

“You can’t drink that milk!  The date on it is yesterday.”


Who has heard that?  Or was it you who said it? 

The dates printed on milk jugs are probably some of the most misunderstood set of numbers in the grocery store.  One of the most common arguments people have at home is whether food should be thrown out because the date has passed.   

Date labels such as “sell-by”, “use-by”, “best-before” are confusing and contribute to about 130 billion pounds of food wasted every year.  Think about how much money that is.  This comes to over $160 billion dollars.

Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations.  Dating of some foods is required by some states but there are some areas where almost no food is dated.

A “Sell-by” date is found on perishable foods like meats and milk.  This tells the store how long it should be displayed.  It is not an expiration date.  Typically, one-third of the product’s shelf life remains after this date if the product is kept refrigerated at home.  This means milk, if it has been refrigerated at all times, not left of the counter and has not been drunk directly from the container, will usually be drinkable for about one week after the “sell-by” date. 

Egg carton dates may be a “pack date” or a “sell-by” date.  The “sell-by” date will not be greater than 45 days after packing. Refrigerated eggs (in their carton and not in the door) can still be used for 3 to 5 weeks after that date.

A “Use-by” or “Best-by” date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality.  These are normally found on shelf-stable products such as canned or boxed goods or condiments.  It is not a safety issue. Foods age in different ways. Frozen meat will not become unsafe to eat if it is kept frozen.  That doesn’t mean it won’t change.  Freezer burn will affect the quality and texture of the meat and make it unpalatable.  Foods such as cookies and crackers will also be affected by time.  The fat in the cookie will react with oxygen and become rancid and crackers will absorb moisture out of the air and become stale.  They will taste off, but will not make you sick.

An “Expires On” date is about safety.  Only a small group of foods have expiration dates.  Infant formula and some baby foods are required by Federal regulations to have an expiration date.  Other foods that should have an expiration date will be ready-to-eat foods such as deli items and prepared sandwiches.  These foods may contain harmful bacteria and are not cooked before they are eaten.

Expiration dates are about safety.  Best by dates are about taste, texture and appearance.

Save your money.  To reduce the waste at the grocery store and the curbside, your best bet to decide if something is still good is to use your senses.  Look at it, smell it, feel it, taste it.


“H.R.5298 – Food Date Labeling Act of 2016.” Congress.gov. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5298

“Blumenthal, Pingree Introduce Commonsense Bill to Standardize Food Date Labeling.” blumenthal.senate.gov. Retrieved from https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/blumenthal-pingree-introduce-commonsense-bill-to-standardize-food-date-labeling

Bloom, Jonathan. “‘Sell By’ Date Labels Confuse Customers, Increase Food Waste.” theplate.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved from http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/20/sell-by-date-labels-confuse-customers-increase-food-waste/

Houston-Edwards, Kelsey. “Why Food Date Labels Don’t Mean What You Think.” pbs.org. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/body/food-expiration-dates/

“Expiration Dates: Should You Pay Attention?” stilltasty.com. Retrieved from http://www.stilltasty.com/articles/view/5

Nagappan, Padma. “To Eat or Not to Eat? The Food Date Labeling Act Could Help You Decide.” civileats.com. Retrieved from http://civileats.com/2016/05/19/to-eat-or-not-to-eat-the-food-date-labeling-act-could-help-you-decide/

USDA www.fsis.usda.gov