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How to Navigate ‘Sell by’, ‘Use by’, & ‘Best Before’ Dates in Order to Cut Down on Food Waste

Last updated by on January 4, 2016

Why ‘Sell By’, ‘Use By’, & ‘Best Before’ Dates Matter

When playing the ‘is it still good?’ game with your food and its shelf life, it’s fairly easy to jump to your own conclusions about what ‘Sell by’, ‘Use by’, and ‘Best if Used by’ mean. For example, one may fear that they will get sick and drop dead if eating something after the ‘use by’ date, but not feel the same fears about the exact same product if it had the same date on it, but was instead stamped with ‘sell by’.

But what does each guideline really mean? And is it really safe to eat the food after the use or sell by dates versus throwing it away?

Food Waste is a Huge Problem

Why does it matter? Americans are tossing out at least $161 billion 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.

That’s a lot of money and a lot of waste. Cutting this waste would save you money, lower overall food prices, and lead to a significant reduction in carbon impact and other environmental damage. And knowing what shelf-life dates mean is the first step in cutting food waste.

Lax Federal Regulation on Food Shelf-Life Dating

Believe it or not, food dating is only required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) in the United States for baby infant formula and some baby foods, in the form of a ‘use by’ date. Other than that, there is no uniform food shelf life dating system. Food dating, at some level, is required by 20 states. However, many states have no food dating regulations at all.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some consistencies and rules that you should follow around food shelf life.

Use By Date

use by date

A ‘use by date’ is the product manufacturers recommended date to use the product in order to still get peak quality. After that date, the product quality could decline, and if proper storage measures aren’t used, your health could be at risk. Many manufacturers voluntarily include ‘use by’ dates because they want their customers to experience their food at its highest quality, in order to grow customer loyalty. They also serve as a ‘we told you so’ warning if you consume the food or drink after the date and it has gone bad.

It is generally recommended that you use a product by its ‘use by’ date. However, products can be kept for much longer periods if refrigerated below 40 degrees F or frozen.

Best if Used By/Best Before Date

‘Best if used by’, aka ‘best before’ dates are recommended use dates as determined by the manufacturer to get the highest quality version of the product, but are not aligned to food safety dates as ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates are.

Sell By Date

‘Sell by’ dates are intended to serve as a guideline for grocers to sell the manufacturers products. Foods with expired sell by dates can still be at their best quality and safe to eat if stored properly. However, as a consumer, it might be wise to buy inventory at your grocer that has a further out ‘sell by’ date versus one that has already expired.

There might also be an opportunity to bargain with grocers to get a lower price on foods that are at or past their ‘sell by’ date. Many grocers automatically mark down foods that are approaching the ‘sell by’ date, and it never hurts to ask those who do not for a discount.

Sell By Storage Guidelines

Here are some FSIS Guidelines for refrigerated products sell by dates. FSIS recommends that you follow ‘use by’ dates, and recommends freezing or cooking the fresh foods by the following timeline with ‘sell by’ or no dates.

Product Storage Times After Purchase
Poultry 1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb 3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry 1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings) 1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating 5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked 1 or 2 days
Eggs 3 to 5 weeks

They also recommend the following storage times for processed foods packaged at a food plant.

Storage of Processed Products Sealed at Plant
Processed Product Unopened, After Purchase After Opening
Cooked Poultry 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Cooked Sausage 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks
Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch with pickling juices 5 to 7 days 3 to 4 days
Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial Brand with USDA seal 2 weeks 3 to 4 days
Bacon 2 weeks 7 days
Hot dogs 2 weeks 1 week
Luncheon meat 2 weeks 3 to 5 days
Ham, fully cooked 7 days slices, 3 days; whole, 7 days
Ham, canned, labeled “keep refrigerated” 9 months 3 to 4 days
Ham, canned, shelf stable 2 years/pantry 3 to 5 days
Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry 3 to 4 days

Using Common Sense on Shelf-Life

These are some great guidelines, but it also pays to use some common sense guidelines around food expiration:

  1. If you’re not going to eat something with a few days, just freeze it.
  2. If it smells bad, don’t eat it.
  3. If it looks bad, don’t eat it.
  4. If it has mold on it, don’t eat it.
  5. If it is perishable, at least refrigerate it.
  6. Perishable food doesn’t like air. Keep things covered and sealed.
  7. Wash your hands before touching perishable foods

Shelf Life Discussion

  • What rules do you follow around shelf life?
  • Do you ever bargain with grocers if a food is at or has passed its ‘sell by’ date. What kind of response do you get?

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I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 10,000+ others by getting FREE email updates. You can also explore every post I have written, in order.

  • For certain things, such as medication, I won’t mess around, but for common foods, I follow the same common sense guidelines as you. You can’t always trust the date, either, since there are some foods that often spoil before their date, like most dairy products. Other products, like chips, can be eaten beyond their date, at the risk of being stale. 😉

  • G.E. Miller says:

    @Kevin – I’ve heard that drug companies are very modest on their expiration dates b/c they want you buying more (when in reality, they might be good for much longer). But I’m not a doctor.

    @BIFS – You’re right. As a general rule of thumb, meats, seafood, and dairy are the ones you really need to be careful with the most.

    • Vicki says:

      I just wanted to mention, in case some did not know, that medications are good at least up to one year past their “expiration” date. the only thing that may happen is as time passes there is a reduction in its strength and therefor a reduction in its efficacy. When I was still working as a Nurse, we did have to mark any samples with a date and we would pull them from our sample cabinet BUT either employees took them home or we would donate them. The only time we would not do that was if the product had a recall and then we would pull what ever lot numbers that were recalled and send them back to the company and also if any lots numbers had been given to a patient we contacted them and had them bring them in etc (and I was the one that implemented the log sheet of whom we dispensed samples to along with the product name and lot number just for that reason, before I did that no one ever knew who was given what) so just a helpful FYI I hope 🙂

  • Budgeting in the Fun Stuff says:

    I don’t mess around with meat or milk…any indications at all of being spoiled, and it gets thrown away. I will admit that a tiny little spot of mold on cheese will just get cut off…I mean, cheese is inherently spoiled anyway, right?

  • M Denis says:

    Growing up, I had 8 siblings & Mom would shop once every 2 weeks. Near the end of that two weeks, some of the foods started to get funky – milk, lunch meat, cheese. But we just used the smell test – kinda off-smelling was still OK to eat. Either that or you wait for dinner (long wait from breakfast). I still use my sniffer in conjunction with the date, but I’m no longer willing to consume “kinda off-smelling”. I can afford it now.

    I am pretty cheap though when it comes to perishable foods – I do not overbuy & I buy meats on sale & freeze them.

  • Ron Ablang says:

    It’s true that we as a people do waste a lot of food. That’s why we don’t feel too bad about throwing away something we’ve lost track of… to our chicken. She later gives it back to us in the form of an egg.

    I’m curious most of all if OP is correct about date labeling of vitamins. I’ve always suspected they might still be good past their dates, but I never can tell for sure.

    • Dennis says:


  • felicia says:

    On the food waste issue. A lot of that could be avoided if they sold things in smaller quantities. If you are single or married without kids it is extremeley difficult to get through, for example, an entire loaf of bread before it goes bad. I end up throwing out about a 1/4 of a loaf most times becuase bread has such short shelf life and a loaf is to large to finish for just me and the husband.

    • Michelle says:


      Check out those “bread bags” that they have in the “as seen on tv” sections. They REALLY do work! I’ve put them in those and then inside one of the hard plastic bread containers (maybe from WalMart) and you wouldn’t believe how much longer the bread lasts.

    • ann says:

      For the bread to be to much to consume before it goes bad I just freeze it. I will buy more then one loaf if on sale. Loaf I am using I keep in the fridge. I know it is said to keep bread out of fridge, but what is one to do. The texture is a tinch more dense but when it comes to saving $ it is fine by me. When you take it out of the freezer, take a paper towel and shove it in the package so it covers the whole length of the bread and the sides some, have the bread laying on the paper towel side (bottom) with bag open (oops, leave bread in its bag), when thawed remove paper towels and put in fridge. When you think about it so many things you are told not to put in fridge just keep on the counter, bread, tomatoes, fruits, etc. I put it all in the fridge, even potatoes and bananas. Bananas the skin will turn black but the fruit is still good. I use less gas having to go out and get more and I am not wasting food, it is all still really good. Also a good idea to wash all skin/peel covered fruits & veggies before putting in the fridge, be sure to dry well and then let air dry (cooking cooling rack does well for this) more before putting in the fridge. Hope this helps. Have a good day.

  • Rufus says:

    Why doesn’t the idiotic FDA//USDA get their acts together and simplify this labeling and guidelines. Millions of pounds/gallons of perfectly good food/dairy products get thrown out every day due to confusion costing consumers large sums of money. A large number of people don’t know what to look/smell for, geeze many would think limburger cheese was bad but thats how it smells. I grew up in the 50’s and as the years went by you “NEVER HEARD OF E-COLI” but then again human waste fertilizer (Mexico-yes its a fact) was never used then. Animals weren’t pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones then they came along as did DDT/MALITHION AND OTHER NASTY CHEMICALS! NOW WE HAVE GMO’S AND WHAT WILL BE ITS LONG TERM EFFECTS?? Foster farms chicken recalls,e-coli vegetable recalls,fish loaded with mercury due to polluted oceans and waterways, on & on and a lot of it is not properly inspected due to government cutbacks but we have $125,000,000,000 for a new aircraft carrier that we don’t need!


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