Label Date Terms
Confusion over phrases like “use by” and “sell by” causes a tremendous amount of waste—in part because there are no standardized definitions for them. (See “A Future with Less Waste” on page 106 for more on this.) Knowing what these labels really mean could set your mind at ease and save you a whole lot of food.
Sell by: This label is meant for the retailer, not you. It lets the folks who stock the grocery store shelves know that a product shouldn’t be sold after that date to ensure peak quality, and it gives consumers time—usually about a week, depending on the item—to eat it once they bring it home. It’s not an indication of food safety.
Best by, or Best before: Terms like these indicate the food company’s best guess as to how long the product will keep at its peak quality. They don’t have anything to do with safety.
Use by: OK, this one is confusing. Both the FDA and USDA say that, like “best by,” the phrase “use by” has to do with quality, and isn’t related to safety except for infant formula. However, new guidelines from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) define “use by” as a hard cutoff date—after which the product may not be
safe. Because these conflicting recommendations are voluntary, there’s no way to know whether that bag of baby spinach carries the FDA’S definition of “use by” (it’s OK to eat after that date) or GMA’S/FMI’S (it’s not).
What’s not on the label that you should
know: No matter what phrase you see, experts say not to freak out and automatically toss a food because it’s approaching or just over the label date. Use your best judgment. Eyeball it. Give it a sniff. If it doesn’t look spoiled, have an off odor and has been stored properly it’s probably fine. A few exceptions: If you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system it’s not worth the risk. Also, deli meat, uncooked hot dogs, unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, raw sprouts, melons and smoked seafood can harbor Listeria— bacteria you can’t see or smell—even at fridge temperatures. Don’t take any chances with those.