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In the Kitchen: Demystifying the Date


Most foods sold in the grocery store are labeled with a “Sell-By” or “Use-By” date. Have you ever wondered what these dates actually tell us? The reality might surprise you.

According to the USDA, food dating is more about food quality than food safety. The dating system for food is not government regulated, so there is no nationwide system for food dating in the US. Except for infant formula, which is government regulated, the date printed on an item is a suggestion to help the purchaser know when to use the product at its best quality.

How to read expiration dates on food

How to read expiration dates on food

Here’s what some of the different food date labels mean:

  • Sell By = Helps the store know how long to display a product for sale.
  • Best if Used By/Before = Indicates a timeframe for the best flavor or quality of the product.
  • Use By = Recommends a deadline for the customer to ensure the product is used at its peak quality.

In each case, the date is recommended by the manufacturer in order to maintain product quality and customer satisfaction.

Food expiration dates and safety

When it comes to food safety and food expiration dates, the USDA gives this advice: “Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly.” Some foods will be good past the date even if they are not at peak quality.

However, the reverse is also true. Food that is mishandled can become contaminated with foodborne bacteria before its use-by date. The best policy, then, is to follow food safety guidelines. Food is often good past the use-by date, but when in doubt, throw it out.

The future of food dating

In May 2019, the FDA officially ruled to recommend the “Best if Used By” label for food products. “Best if Used By” indicates to consumers when a product may begin to deteriorate in quality, but also that the product is still safe to consume. This ruling comes as part of an effort made by the FDA to reduce food waste.

Ultimately, the best way to determine whether food is still good is to observe smell, texture, and taste of the product.

To learn more about food safety, check out our Food Handler Training!

Suzanna Sandridge

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2014 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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