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

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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