Unfortunately confusion over date labeling leads to billions of pounds of food waste every year.
Why does it matter? Americans are throwing out at least 161 billion dollars in food each year. The average American family throws away 40% of their food. In terms of money, that’s hundreds every year in meats, fruit, vegetables and grain products. We will explain the difference between “use-by,” “sell-by,” and “best-by” dates.
“Use by” date has a similar meaning to “best if used by.” It means the product will have the best qualities if consumed by the date noted. The USDA prefers manufacturers to add “best” to this phrase.
It means the product should retain maximum freshness, flavor, and texture if used by this date. It is not a purchase-by or safety date.
Beyond this date, the product begins to deteriorate, although it may still be edible.
This label is aimed to retailers, and it informs them of the date by which the product should be sold or removed from shelf life. This does not mean that the product is unsafe to consume after the date. Typically one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.
This phrasing is often present on packaging for meats and some dairy as some states require an expiration date on meat or milk. It’s best not to use the product past this listed date in those cases as it signifies when the food most likely will spoil. For other food items, the manufacturer may have simply chosen to use “expires by” instead of “best if used by” to warn that the product may be stale or have lost its flavor by that date. Check all food carefully for signs of spoilage.
Safe Handling is Key
Even if a product is well within its “sell-by” or “use-by” date, it can become unsafe for consumption if handled or stored incorrectly. Make sure to keep refrigerated foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and keep the unrefrigerated time, such as during transport, to less than two hours.
Fresh meat or produce should be handled safely to prevent cross-contamination from bacteria, which, if allowed to grow, can make any food unsafe, regardless of how fresh it is. Dry goods should be kept away from heat and moisture to prevent the growth of bacteria, fungus, and mold.
If, at any time, your food takes on an off odor or appearance, the packaging begins to bulge, or is otherwise compromised, it is best to play it safe and avoid consumption. When purchasing meat, poultry or fish the flesh should be moist never dry, never sticky and the flesh should spring back when touched. Not all bacteria responsible for food-borne illness produce odors or visual evidence of their presence, so these clues should not be used exclusively to determine the safety of your food.