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“Sell By” “Best By” “Use By” What do they really mean?

When you purchase groceries, do you pay attention to the sell by, best by or use by dates. Perhaps you smell the milk before you pour it in your bowl of cereal or before drinking it. I do, but there are so many people that will throw food away based on the package date. Most consumers assume these dates are standardized for our safety. The truth is, they have nothing to do with food safety. So what does the “best buy” date mean on a can of corn? How about that “sell by” date of on a carton of eggs? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the date types are:

  • “Sell By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

  • “Best if Used By (or Best By)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

  • “Use By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

However, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) do not mandate that foods are date labeled. The only exception is baby food which is required to carry an expiration date. If the federal government is not responsible for these dates, then who is putting these dates on our food? It is done by state law or it is at the discretion of the manufacturer. The FDA allows manufacturers to stamp their product with a date in order to help the seller determine how long to keep the product on display and to help the consumer use the product when it is of best quality.

This system is very confusing to customers and aids in food waste. Our landfills are full of nutritious food that can be directed to people that are hungry. In 2010, the USDA estimated that in the United States, food waste was between 30-40 percent of the food supply, approximately 133 billion pounds of food and worth an estimated $161 billion. The good news is that the government announced in 2015 that they are calling for a 50% reduction by 2030. For more details, read The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash. The entire brief can be found at

Next week, I will inform you on innovative methods that other countries and U.S. companies are utilizing to feed hungry people and reduce food waste by ignoring “sell by”, “best by” or “use by” dates.

I hope this blog has made you aware of date types and their connection to food waste.

Let's All Eat Together!

The statistics were provided by the United States Department of Agriculture

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