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

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

When playing the “is it still good?” or “is it still OK to eat?” game with your food and its shelf life (refrigerator or not), it’s fairly easy to jump to your own conclusions about what ‘Sell by’, ‘Use by’, ‘Best Before’, and ‘Best if Used by’ dates mean. For example, one may fear that they will get food poisoning 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 an Expensive & Wasteful 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. Food is the 3rd largest expense category for American households (trailing only housing and transportation), on average. With off-the-charts grocery price inflation in recent years, we’re talking about thousands of dollars every year in meats, fruit, vegetables and grain products that goes into the trash/compost bin.

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.

Federal Regulation on Food Shelf-Life Dating is Lacking

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. Past date sales regulations only exist in 21 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, or “Shelf Life” Definition

A ‘use by’ date is the product manufacturer’s recommended date to use the product in order to still get peak product quality, with a safety component as well. After that date, the product quality could decline, and if proper storage measures aren’t used, your health could be at risk.

use by date

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 Date / Best Before Date Definition

‘Best if used by’ date, aka the ‘best before’ date 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.

best before date

Sell By Date Definition

‘Sell by’ dates are intended to serve as a guideline for grocers to sell the manufacturers products by. 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 or is close to it.

sell by date

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 product sell by dates. FSIS recommends that you follow ‘use by’ dates, and recommends freezing or cooking the fresh foods by the following timelines:

Food Type Refrigerator [40°F (4°C) or below] Freezer [0°F (-18°C) or below]
Salad Egg, chicken, ham, tuna, and macaroni salads 3 to 4 days Does not freeze well
Hot dogs Opened package 1 week 1 to 2 months
Unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Luncheon meat Opened package or deli sliced 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
Unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Bacon and sausage Bacon 1 week 1 month
Sausage, raw, from chicken, turkey, pork, or beef 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months
Sausage, fully cooked, from chicken, turkey, pork, or beef 1 week 1 to 2 months
Sausage, purchased frozen After cooking, 3-4 days 1-2 months from date of purchase
Hamburger, ground meats and ground poultry Hamburger, ground beef, turkey, chicken, other poultry, veal, pork, lamb, and mixtures of them 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Fresh beef, veal, lamb, and pork Steaks 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Chops 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Ham Fresh, uncured, uncooked 3 to 5 days 6 months
Fresh, uncured, cooked 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 months
Cured, cook-before-eating, uncooked 5 to 7 days or “use by” date 3 to 4 months
Fully-cooked, vacuum-sealed at plant, unopened 2 weeks or “use by” date 1 to 2 months
Cooked, store-wrapped, whole 1 week 1 to 2 months
Cooked, store-wrapped, slices, half, or spiral cut 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
Country ham, cooked 1 week 1 month
Canned, labeled “Keep Refrigerated,” unopened 6 to 9 months Do not freeze
Canned, shelf-stable, opened

Note: An unopened, shelf-stable, canned ham can be stored at room temperature for 2 years.

3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
Prosciutto, Parma or Serrano ham, dry Italian or Spanish type, cut 2 to 3 months 1 month
Fresh poultry Chicken or turkey, whole 1 to 2 days 1 year
Chicken or turkey, pieces 1 to 2 days 9 months
Fin Fish Fatty Fish (bluefish, catfish, mackerel, mullet, salmon, tuna, etc.) 1 – 3 Days 2 – 3 Months
Lean Fish (cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, sole, etc.) 6 – 8 Months
Lean Fish (pollock, ocean perch, rockfish, sea trout.) 4 – 8 Months
Shellfish Fresh Crab Meat 2 – 4 Days 2 – 4 Months
Fresh Lobster 2 – 4 Days 2 – 4 Months
Live Crab, Lobster 1 day . Not recommended
Live Clams, Mussels, Oysters, and Scallops 5 – 10 Days Not recommended
Shrimp, Crayfish 3 – 5 Days 6 – 18 Months
Shucked Clams, Mussels, Oysters, and Scallops 3 – 10 Days 3 – 4 Months
Squid 1 – 3 Days 6 – 18 Months
Eggs Raw eggs in shell 3 to 5 weeks Do not freeze in shell. Beat yolks and whites together, then freeze.
Raw egg whites and yolks

Note: Yolks do not freeze well

2 to 4 days 12 months
Raw egg accidentally frozen in shell

Note: Toss any frozen eggs with a broken shell

Use immediately after thawing Keep frozen, then
refrigerate to thaw
Hard-cooked eggs 1 week Do not freeze
Egg substitutes, liquid, unopened 1 week Do not freeze
Egg substitutes, liquid, opened 3 days Do not freeze
Egg substitutes, frozen, unopened After thawing, 1 week or refer to “use by” date 12 months
Egg substitutes, frozen, opened After thawing, 3 to 4 days or refer to “use by” date Do not freeze
Casseroles with eggs After baking, 3 to 4 days After baking, 2 to 3 months
Eggnog, commercial 3 to 5 days 6 months
Eggnog, homemade 2 to 4 days Do not freeze
Pies: Pumpkin or pecan After baking, 3 to 4 days After baking, 1 to 2 months
Pies: Custard and chiffon After baking, 3 to 4 days Do not freeze
Quiche with filling After baking, 3 to 5 days After baking, 2 to 3 months
Soups and stews Vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Leftovers Cooked meat or poultry 3 to 4 days 2 to 6 months
Chicken nuggets or patties 3 to 4 days 1 to 3 months
Pizza 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months

Using Common Sense on Shelf-Life

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

  • If you’re not going to eat something within a few days of cooking it, then freeze it.
  • If it smells bad, don’t eat it.
  • If it looks bad, don’t eat it.
  • If it has mold on it, don’t eat it.
  • If it is perishable, at least refrigerate it.
  • Perishable food does not respond well to air. Keep things covered and sealed.
  • Wash your hands before touching perishable foods

What is the Best Refrigerator Temperature to Extend Food Shelf Life & Keep it Fresh?

Food will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria like salmonella and various molds can easily grow at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and above. The ideal refrigerator temperature is somewhere in between. A number of experts put the ideal refrigerator temperature to extend food life and freshness at 36 or 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

How do you know what your refrigerator’s temperature is? A number of refrigerators will have thermometers built in, but most do not and have a few different settings. I would recommend purchasing your own refrigerator thermometer (example here) so that you can really dial in to the ideal temperature. Make sure to put the thermometer somewhere in the middle of the refrigerator, away from the cooling vents.

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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