Understanding the “expiration” dates on food

You’re familiar with the date stamp on food packaging. It’s accompanied by the words “sell-by,” “use-by” or “best-by.” But what exactly do those labels mean?

In the United States, food manufacturers typically use a system called “open dating,” which includes stamping a date on food packaging. This dating often has a twofold purpose — it allows businesses to know how long a product can be on display for sale and it lets buyers know when a product is at its best quality.

While date stamping isn’t required (except for baby formula), if a product does have a date stamp, the date must include both month and day of the month as well as one of the phrases we talked about earlier. Those phrases seem to be used interchangeably, but do they really mean the same thing?

The short answer is no. Here’s a look at what they mean:


A date stamp accompanied by a “sell-by” label is intended to tell retailers how long to sell the product. The product should be sold or removed from the shelf by the date included on the packaging.

Just because the sell-by date has passed, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat the product. While ideally you should buy products before the sell-by date, the Institute of Food Technologists indicates that they can be safely eaten for a short time after the date.


The “use-by” label is intended to let consumers know how long they can consume a food. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the food will make you sick after the date, but it does mean that its quality will be impacted after that date.

In short, the date with a use-by label is the last date that the manufacturer recommends you eat the product while it’s at peak quality. You should pay attention to this label, and avoid eating foods past their use-by date, unless they were frozen.


This label is not meant to tell consumers how long a product should be available for purchase or how long it can be safely consumed. Instead, it’s simply an indicator of how long the product should be at its best flavor or quality.

In addition to these three types of labels, you may also see closed or coded dates, which are packing numbers used by manufacturers. No need to try and decipher them!

Beyond labels

Food waste is a significant problem world-wide. In fact, in the United States, more than 30 percent of all food produced for the store or home is wasted.

Part of the issue is that many people don’t understand how long foods can be safely consumed. Many people discard foods that could be safely used after the date indicated on the packaging.

If a product has a use-by date, you should adhere to that date. But if a product has a sell-by or best-by label, there’s a certain range of time you can safely cook or freeze it. The United States Department of Agriculture offers a guide to appropriate storage times.

When consuming foods, use common sense. If the food smells or looks bad, don’t eat it. If it has mold on it, don’t eat it. And if it’s perishable, it should be refrigerated or frozen until you’re ready to eat it.

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