This Is What Best-By, Use-By, and Sell-By Dates Really Mean
Stop throwing away perfectly good food! Here's your cheat sheet to what's still good—and what needs to go.
Confused by “best by,” “sell by,” and “use by”? You’re not alone. In fact, a Harvard University study found that more than 90 percent of Americans throw away perfectly good food due to label confusion—resulting in 398,000 tons of food waste each year. Because, as it turns out, those eggs with a sell-by date don’t suddenly turn rotten at midnight.
Understand what those labels really mean
“Sell by,” “use by,” and “best by” are actually all dates determined by the food manufacturers, and they’re the manufacturers’ best guess as to food quality—not food safety. Basically, they indicate how long a food producer will guarantee their product will still be at peak quality to enjoy.
And there’s no governmental authority policing how those dates are used—though Congress has tried (and failed) to pass legislation in recent years to try to standardize this labeling and clear up the confusion. Depending on the product and how it’s been handled, it is likely perfectly safe to eat for days or weeks after that sell-by, use-by or best-by date has passed.
Ignore the sell-by date
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “the sell-by date is literally just for the stores themselves,” so the manufacturer can let them know when a product may be past its prime and need to be taken off of store shelves. (Again, it may still be perfectly tasty and perfectly safe for long past that date.)
Inspect your food
You can usually tell quickly when a product’s gone bad—there’s mold on the bread, or the milk smells sour. “Check the quality of the specific product by smell, taste, if it’s visually okay, if there’s no mold or discoloration,” says Stacey Antine, MS, RDN, founder of HealthBarn USA. Keep in mind that bad things can “happen even before the use-by or sell-by date,” especially if it’s a perishable food that may have spent time at an unsafe temperature.
Stop the clock
Have food that you know you won’t finish before it might go bad? Just chill. “If you are getting close to the indicated date…put it in the freezer,” Antine suggests. “It sustains the product, extends its life, and reduces food waste.” Now that you know, make sure you’re aware of these items you never knew had expiration dates.