What Does a “Best By” Date Mean?

By Richard Asa and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
February 08, 2023
What Does a “Best By” Date Mean?

Up to 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. One reason: We throw out food because of dates stamped on packages, cans, and bottles.

When divers pulled up a Civil War-era steamboat at the bottom of the Missouri River that contained canned food, they made another discovery: Inside the cans were perfectly edible peaches, oysters, and tomatoes, preserved for more than a century.

Modern canned foods don’t deteriorate in months, as you might think. The dates you see are only loosely related to quality and have nothing to do with safety. You can save money and the planet using the food in cans and frozen packages that you buy.

Up to 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. One reason for this massive waste: We throw out food because of dates stamped on packages, cans, and bottles.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Processed Foods and Health Risks


Food is not contaminated after the sell-by date

Food doesn’t pick up dangerous pathogens because it sits on a shelf. Product recalls and poisoning outbreaks don’t happen because of food deteriorating over time.  

“There are two types of bacteria that can be found on food: pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illness, and spoilage bacteria, which do not cause illness but do cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant characteristics such as an undesirable taste or odor,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). You might not enjoy the food or even find it inedible, but it won’t make you ill.

On the other hand, if you leave food on the counter in hot weather or in a hot car, it could be unsafe, regardless of any dates on the package.

Trust your nose and eyes

Give milk, yogurt, juice, and sauces a sniff. Meat may be fine even if it looks gray. Don’t eat food with visible mold, except for aged cheeses like cheddar, Parmesan, and brie. Trim away the mold and eat the rest.

What food labels mean

According to the USDA:

  • "Best if Used By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
  • “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

This chart has more details.

Tips for avoiding waste

If you see something labeled with an “expiration date,” usually meats and dairy products, take that seriously. But eggs are good for up to 5 weeks after that date. To test an egg, fill a small bowl with water. Place the whole intact egg in the water. If it sinks, it is still edible. If it floats, the egg is drying out inside: Throw it away.

Freeze food you bought in large quantities and leftovers you won’t eat right away. See here for tips on storage.

If you tend not to use up your fresh produce, freeze it raw or cooked in dinner size portions. You might also switch to buying canned or frozen vegetables, without a loss in nutrients. But don’t throw out the cans because of the “best by” dates.

If you don’t want to use a food after the “by/before” date passes, donate it to a food pantry to help feed the many people who can’t afford food.

Why you shouldn’t waste food  

When the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) studied food waste in Nashville, Denver, and New York City, it concluded that an average of nearly 2.5 pounds of edible food per person went to waste in homes every week. That was close to enough to feed someone for a day.  Restaurants waste plenty as well, but not as much as we do in our homes.

While most of the residents in those cities said that they throw out less food than other Americans, it wasn’t true.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food accounts for about a quarter of the material placed in U.S. municipal landfills. Municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States.

If food waste were a country, it would be the third worst carbon-emitting country on the planet after China and the United States, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Americans are especially wasteful.

Think of your pocketbook

"The average household is losing up to $450 on food each year because they don't understand the labels," said Dana Gunders, a former NRDC food and agriculture staff scientist. And that number doesn’t account for inflation.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Nutrition section


February 08, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN