Sell By, Use By, Best By: Food Experts Decipher The Meaning of Expiration DatesFeb 01, 2024 10:12AM ● By Liv Osby
So, it’s time to clean out the pantry and there are two cans of chicken soup, a jar of mayonnaise, and assorted canned veggies that are past their expiration date.
Seems like such a waste of food and money to toss them in the trash. But no one wants to get food poisoning. So out they go.
But experts say many foods are still fine to eat long past their expiration dates, often for months. And even products like milk and eggs can be consumed after the date stamped on the package.
“I think a lot of consumers don’t realize the reasoning behind these dates … and what they mean,” said Kimberly Baker, Food Systems and Safety Program Team Director with Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension Service.
“They are not safety-related at all. They are for the quality of the food,” she said. “A lot of food waste related to these dates just occurs because of a lack of education in what they mean.”
In fact, only a quarter of consumers know what the “Use-by” date means, according to a recent survey by communications agency Cherry Digital, which found that American households waste an average of $907 worth of food annually.
The waste is even higher in South Carolina – more than $1,300 a year, the survey showed, noting that the Palmetto State is the most wasteful state in the nation, compared with least wasteful West Virginia at almost $405.
“Sell by,” “Best by,” and “Use by” are labels foods typically sport. But what do they really mean?
“Sell by” is most commonly found on breads and baked goods, said Baker, and signifies the date by which retailers should sell the product to ensure peak quality.
“The date is for the store,” she said. “But it … allows the consumer to have it home for the next several days for the best quality.”
So, while baked goods could become stale or moldy after that date, that will happen long before it becomes unsafe to eat, she said.
“It doesn’t mean that one bite you took is going to hurt you,” Baker said.
“Best by,” “Best if used by,” or “Best before,” are purely for flavor and quality, she said, and have nothing to do with safety.
“It’s just that the manufacturer has likely done some testing or observations and determined that by that date, you’re going to be at peak quality – optimal color, taste, texture, those sensory characteristics,” she said.
One example, Baker said, is a jar of hot sauce, which is usually a bright red or orange color.
“Over time, it will lose quality and the color will dull down,” she said. “Manufacturers will choose a date where they’re sure from the date of manufacture to that date the color will always be the same. But beyond that date, it’s still safe for a period of time.”
“Use by” is very similar to “Best if used by” so the product is used by that date for best quality, she said.
“After that date, it might start losing some of those quality characteristics,” she said. “But safety is not impacted.”
One exception is “Use by” dates on certain items, like highly perishable meat or poultry salads, she said.
“Most of the time the manufacturers still have a little bit of wiggle room in there,” she said. “But with highly perishable food items, you need to eat those much faster. They won’t last in the refrigerator forever like salad dressing.”
“Expiration date” is typically seen on canned goods, which have the maximum amount of shelf life, Baker said.
“We recommend (the food is still edible) about a year to 18 months past the expiration date, depending on that product,” she said. “If it’s five years, there may be some loss of flavor or color or something like that, most often color. But it’s not a safety issue.”
The expiration date on leavening agents like yeast, however, does signify a loss of ability to make bread rise, for example, she said. But again, it’s not unsafe, she said.
The Cherry Digital survey found that about 49 percent of people won't eat food beyond its “Sell-by” date, that about 30 percent thought the “Use-by” date was the last date the product was edible, and 22 percent thought it was the last date the food could be sold in a store.
Andy Harig, a vice president of FMI-the Food Industry Association, said one of the challenges is that date labeling is not regulated at the federal level, so the manufacturer can pick their own label
And there is patchwork of state regulation for products like dairy and eggs, he said.
In addition, the labels can mean different things to different people, he said, which can add to the confusion.
But typically, he said, labels largely provide information about food quality, and in certain cases safety.
“The distinction is a graham cracker, if you eat it 20 years from now, it won’t be a great experience, you might break a tooth,” he said. “But it won’t be harmful.”
“Use by” is an indicator that there may be a need to consume an item by a certain date for safety reasons or nutritional degradation, Harig said, while “Best if used by” is a quality determinant.
So, the “Use-by” label on a product like shrimp salad indicates it should be eaten in a narrow period of time, he said.
The quality label is more challenging, he said, adding that people often don’t know what to do with a product that has reached or exceeded the date on the package.
“What we see is some folks will err on the side of throwing it out too soon, and some will keep it longer. Some throw it out by default, even though the product is still good,” he said.
“Part of the challenge is that when you look at the dates, there’s not a hard and fast scientific date you can put on a product and say it’s no longer good to eat.”
In some cases, like the shrimp salad, for example, the storage temperature plays a role, Harig said.
“Usually on a perishable item like that, you want to think of it as a couple days on either side,” he said. “It does place a bit of a burden on consumers.”
Harig said he didn’t have a breakdown of the number of people who get sick from eating food past the expiration date but that based on anecdotal information, he suspects those numbers are low.
“If it’s at the point where you could get sick, there would have been some kind of change you would notice,” he said.
So generally, “if a food smells unusual or starts to look like it’s not intended to look,” it should not be consumed, he said.
Dates on canned foods almost always relate to quality – the date to eat it for the best experience – but it’s often good for years, he said.
The “Sell-by” date is meant to notify the store when the product should be pulled for optimum quality, but it generally has some quality life beyond that, so consumers have time to eat it at home, at least another week, he said.
FMI is working with the Consumer Brands Association to move the food industry to settle on just two terms – “Best if used by,” for quality, and “Use by,” for food safety or food degradation, Harig said. But it’s voluntary.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) has reintroduced the Food Date Labeling Act to standardize the practice and end consumer confusion so Americans don’t throw out safe food.
“It’s estimated that around 90 percent of Americans prematurely throw out perfectly safe food, in part because of confusion about what date labels mean,” she said in a release. “Meanwhile, more than 38 million Americans—including 12 million children —are food insecure, the climate crisis is worsening by the day, and our economy is losing billions every year due to food waste. This staggering waste is not only unacceptable — it’s avoidable.”
A 2016 Harvard study revealed that 84 percent of consumers discard food close to the expiration date at least occasionally while more than a third thought date labeling was federally regulated.
“Misunderstanding the meaning of food date labels is strongly associated with reports of more frequent food discards,” the study’s authors wrote, adding, “… this research underlines the need for a strong accompanying communications campaign, and highlights a particular need to reach those ages 18-34.”
While Congress considers Pingree’s bill, which Harig said has been introduced in the last three sessions and has the support of “a number of groups,” FMI continues to push for the voluntary labeling.
But even that can be challenging, he said, because some companies view the same products differently – one might want “Best if used by” because it’s about quality and another might want “Use by” because it’s worried about safety.
Harig said FMI wants to make sure companies make the changes in a thoughtful way that makes sense to consumers and helps end unintended consequences, such as edible, safe food winding up in landfills or being sent for animal feed at a time when many people don’t have enough to eat, he said.
“Bringing some clarity to the date labeling system will help that,” he said.
Baker said that assuming they are handled properly, many foods can be safely eaten for weeks or months after the package date.
Eggs, for instance, are generally good for three to five weeks after the date if they are refrigerated, she said.
Milk can last about five to seven days after the expiration date so long as the refrigerator is set at 36 to 38 degrees, she said.
“You definitely want it less than 40 degrees,” she said, adding a sniff test is always a good way to tell if it’s gone by.
Even mayonnaise and salad dressings, because they’re acidic enough, can last a couple of months beyond the expiration date, she said.
Any meat, fish or poultry should be used within one to two days of bringing it home for best quality and safety, or wrapped well and frozen for later use, she said.
Both dried rice and pasta will last two years after the expiration date if unopened or one year if opened, she said.
Cherry Digital says that consumers can reduce food waste by freezing those that can be frozen, including milk, which can be put in an ice cube tray and used in coffee or tea, placing herbs in a glass of water so they’ll last longer, and making stale bread or crusts into breadcrumbs using a food processor.
Baker says consumers can call their local extension agent and ask about product dates and other related questions.
“We answer questions from home food preservation to my home freezer went out to how good are my eggs good for after that date,” she said.
Consumers can also go to Foodsafety.gov and find the Foodkeeper app to learn about food shelf life.