What Does a `Best By’ or ‘Sell By’ Date Really Mean?

By Richard Asa  @RickAsa
October 06, 2015

Ninety percent of Americans needlessly throw out food based on `sell by’ dates and safety concerns.

Americans waste a lot of perfectly good food based on arbitrary dates stamped on packages, cans, and bottles that don’t actually mean much, a benchmark report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says.

You’ve probably done it because the vast majority of Americans do, prompted by a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle, but mostly you’re just wasting food because the labels are a ball of confusion.

Ask yourself how often you’ve thrown out a carton of milk because you still had it past the “sell by” date. It was, likely, still okay to drink for at least several days to a week at least. Try that test at home. You’ll almost certainly find the “sell by” date is meaningless for your consumption.

Surveys have found that most consumers don’t know what the labels mean: In a 2007 study, 25 percent of respondents thought you were supposed to throw away food once it reaches the "sell-by" date even though the label is intended for grocery store stockers to keep track of product rotation.

Worldwide, all discarded food is responsible for 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions, the report adds. Put into perspective, if food waste were a country it would be the “third worst” carbon-emitting country on the planet after China and the U.S., according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Americans seem particularly phobic about it, with about 40 percent of our food going uneaten, an economic loss of about $165 billion a year. The authors of the NRDC report said most of that waste is due to “misinterpretation” of date labels.

"The average household is losing up to $450 on food each year because they don't understand the labels," said Dana Gunders, an NRDC food & agriculture staff scientist.

The NRDC study, sardonically entitled “The Dating Game,” made it clear that consumer confusion lies at the heart of the food waste. You should include yourself as among the confused because the labels, by their nature, are confusing.

Most of the problem is the lack of a uniform or universally accepted system used for dating food in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This makes common sense your guide. “For the most part, dates are provided as guidelines for both product sellers and the buying public,” reports Gourmet Sleuth. “Most dates are NOT expiration dates; you are not going to get sick because you eat something past its ‘best by’ date.”

Some dates, in addition, are clearly marketing devices for product manufacturers. Consider soft drinks. You’ve probably noticed that many, if not all, are now labeled with “best by” or “use by” dates.

But, what is there to expire in a sealed beverage made mostly of water, sugar, and artificial coloring? “This is one of those cases where the manufacturer appears to just be encouraging you to throw it out and buy more,” Gourmet Sleuth adds.

To make at least one aspect of this issue clear, some foods do have limited shelf life, which is again mostly an application of common sense. Fresh meat will last a few days in the refrigerator. If you didn’t buy it to eat it right away, then wrap it well and freeze it.

Eggs are reported to be safe up to three to five weeks after purchase, even though the use by date will be much earlier. You can use boxed items a year after the use by date without any change in quality.

Canned food usually have expiration dates of 1 to 4 years, but if you keeping them in a cool dark place and in good condition (no dents), you can get 3 to 6 years from them. If you haven’t opened a can by then, you clearly don’t want to eat it anyway.

One thing you shouldn’t do is rely on your sense of smell. Although you may, and have gotten away with it up to now, food safety experts note that your nose can’t detect the many toxins in food causing so much concern these days.

“It’s a learned response to know whether food is spoiled,” according to Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. “Does cheese smell so bad because it’s spoiled or is that the way cheese is supposed to smell?” So, in effect, you have to be a super sniffer to know the difference.


April 09, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN