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, or “Shelf Life”
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.
(40 °F or below)
(0 °F or below)
|Salads||Egg, chicken, ham, tuna & macaroni salads||3 to 5 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 & Sausage||Bacon||7 days||1 month|
|Sausage, raw — from chicken, turkey, pork, beef||1 to 2 days||1 to 2 months|
|Hamburger & Other Ground Meats||Hamburger, ground beef, turkey, veal, pork, lamb, & mixtures of them||1 to 2 days||3 to 4 months|
|Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb & Pork||Steaks||3 to 5 days||6 to 12 months|
|Chops||3 to 5 days||4 to 6 months|
|Roasts||3 to 5 days||4 to 12 months|
|Fresh Poultry||Chicken or turkey, whole||1 to 2 days||1 year|
|Chicken or turkey, pieces||1 to 2 days||9 months|
|Soups & 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 with a few days, just 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 doesn’t like air. Keep things covered and sealed.
- 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?