Sell-By Dates on Food: Fact vs Fiction
An easy way to save money is by not wasting food.
Use what you’ve bought, and you won’t need to buy more of it as quickly.
Sell-by dates, use-by dates and other date-labeling phrases can be confusing and lead you to throw food away sooner than necessary. Or worse, they could leave you to believe food is safe when it isn’t.
The USDA estimates that 30% of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels, partly due to confusion over label dates.
What Sell-By Dates Mean
Except for infant formula, product dating isn’t required by federal regulations. The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, however, provides lots of information about food product dating.
There isn’t a consistent system of food dating guidelines, so manufacturers can voluntarily provide dates. Federal inspection regulations require that they be truthful and not misleading, and dates for meat, poultry and egg products must comply with federal regulations.
Here are some common phrases that are used in putting use dates on food:
- “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It isn’t a purchase or safety date.
- “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It isn’t a safety date.
- “Use-By” is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is only a safety date on infant formula. The label might also say “Best if Used By” or “Best Before” a specific date.
- “Freeze-By” indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It isn’t a purchase or safety date.
- Closed or Coded “Date” is a packing number the manufacturer uses to track a product in transport and in case of recall. Stores may use these to determine when they got a product and how long to keep it on the shelf.
- “Expiration (EXP) Date” is another type of Sell-By Date. Egg cartons with USDA grade shields must display a “pack date” when they went in the carton.
- What Label is Best?
The odd thing is that none of these dates have anything to do with food safety. They aren’t meant to tell consumers when a product could be contaminated or spoiled.
The dates listed by manufacturers are when they think the food will be freshest.
To reduce confusion and wasted food, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, recommends using a “Best if Used By” date. This shows consumers when something will be of the best quality by using the calendar date shown.
Most of the label date phrases aren’t aimed at consumers but help stores decide how long to display products.
Are Foods Safe After the Date Passes?
Except for infant formula, if the date passes on a product it should still be safe if handled properly until spoilage is evident, according to the USDA.
Foods not showing signs of spoilage can still be used beyond the “Best if Used By” date, when it’s up to the consumer to inspect the product.
As you probably already know, smell is usually the best way to test.
Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. It should not be eaten. Produce can spoil if not packaged correctly, and moisture, time, unsafe temperatures, and improper handling can also cause spoilage.
Viruses can’t grow in food and do not cause spoilage.
How Long Can Food Be Kept?
Dates obviously vary by product, but fresh produce, meat and eggs should be used a lot quicker than packaged foods.
Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they’re not exposed to freezing temperatures or are stored in areas hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Codes on cans appear as a series of letters/numbers and refer to the date the product was canned. The codes aren’t meant to be used by consumers as a “Best if Used By” date.
If a can has a “Best if Used By” date, it’s for peak quality. Throw away cans that are dented, rusted or swollen.
High-acid canned foods such as tomatoes and fruits will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods such as meat and vegetables will keep for two to five years, according to the USDA.
Other non-perishables such as chips, cereals and pastas have sell-by dates that are more about quality than safety. They can still be eaten after the sell-by date, though should be thrown away if they taste or feel stale.
Perishable food should be refrigerated when you get home from the grocery store or frozen if it won’t be eaten. Here are some refrigeration storage times for some items after purchase, all uncooked:
Poultry: 1-2 days Beef, veal, pork and lamb 3-5 days Ground meat and ground poultry: 1-2 days Fresh variety meats 1-2 days Cured ham, cook-before-eating: 5-7 days Sausage from pork, beef or turkey, uncooked: 1-2 days Eggs: 3-5 weeks
Processed meats can generally last three to four days.
Check Your Food Yourself
You don’t want to take a chance by eating spoiled food. If a package of meat or anything else smells off, then throw it away.
Another thing to avoid is tossing out perfectly good food. A sell-by date label can give you a false idea that the item isn’t safe to eat after the date listed.
That may be the case if the food has spoiled for some reason. But remember that the date is when a manufacturer considers the item to be at its freshest. After that date it may still be just as fresh to eat.
The point is, you have to check your food for freshness after the sell-by date. If you don’t and you’re throwing away food based solely on a label, then you might be throwing away money too.