Use Before, Sell Before, Best By: Food Dating Labels Explained



September 17, 2021 – You look in the fridge and see that your favorite coffee creamer is about to expire.

It’s half full, and you know what that means.

Sigh. You have, unfortunately, to throw it away.

And unless you’re feeding a small army, you might even look at some products and ask yourself: how the hell are people supposed to finish this so quickly?

The good news, or the bad news, as you’ll see below, is that a lot of people use the term “expiration date” incorrectly. The goal, according to PIRG, a consumer watchdog group, is not only to keep you from throwing away still good food and wasting money, but also to reduce the massive amounts of food wasted each year.

Outside of some infant formulas, dates next to labels such as “Best-By” and “Use-By” rarely speak to when products are spoiled or unsafe to eat or drink, according to a news report. advice. to guide by PIRG Consumer Watchdog.

On the contrary, these dates largely refer to when the products are at their highest quality; for example, when they are the tastiest.

So that family member you tease for “letting it stretch” past the date on the package? Their instincts were probably right.

It is also important to know that product dating is not required by the federal government, which means it does not have to meet federal standards.

These dates are also not always based on science, so they are not as precise as you might think.

In addition, our products are often quite acceptable for consumption after the date indicated on the packaging.

Labels Explained

PIRG breaks down different labels:

  • “Better if used by” Where “Better if used before”: The date when the product will have its best flavor or quality
  • “Use by”: The last date the product is likely to be at its highest quality
  • “Freeze By”: The date when you need to freeze a product in order for it to maintain its top quality
  • “Sell by”: This label is directed to the retailer for inventory purposes. This is the last date the product should be displayed in the store.

These are called “open dating” labels, PIRG says.

You may have noticed that some non-perishable items, like canned soups and vegetables, have a longer string of numbers and letters.

These are “closed meetings”. It tells you the date of manufacture of the product.

Check your eggs

Food dating for eggs and other poultry products is slightly different, according to the PIRG guide.

If you see an egg cardboard along with a USDA grade (“Grade AA” being the highest quality, versus “Grade A” having a slightly lower quality), there is also a three-digit number that tells you the day of the year the eggs were washed and packed, says the guide.

For example, January 5 would be 005. December 31 would be 365.

There may also be an expiration date on your egg wrap, but again, eggs are still safe to eat after the date, the guide says.

In fact, your eggs can last up to 5 weeks after purchase if stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator and in the original packaging, according to the guide.

Bottled water can last indefinitely if stored correctly, as in a cool, dark space away from strong odors and extreme temperatures.

Packets of wild and white rice that aren’t opened can last 2 years in your closet, the guide says.

Other products, such as canned meats and vegetables, can last 3 to 5 years.

Waste tons

Between 30% and 40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted, according to at the US Department of Agriculture.

Every year, 108 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States, which equates to roughly $ 161 billion of perfectly safe food, according to to Feeding America, a US nonprofit organization with a network of more than 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries.

Better public knowledge of date labels could prevent half a million tonnes of food from being wasted, according to PIRG.

For example, in some states, you are not even allowed to donate products to those in need if the expiration date has passed.

Feeding America, along with its partners, saved more than 4 billion pounds of groceries last year, including 1.8 billion pounds of fresh produce, according to to the organization.

Feeding America works with retailers, farmers, and others to collect and donate safe, high-quality food that would otherwise have gone to waste.

The federal government has also taken action.

In 2018, the FDA, USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency teamed up to create the “Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative,” which aims to educate more Americans about food waste, including understanding date labels. some products.

Agencies also work with retailers and manufacturers to reduce food loss and waste as they grow, transport and sell produce.

When to throw it away

So how do you know when the products have really gone wrong?

Some people do the “taste test” to see if the products have spoiled. This is a dangerous method, because even a tiny amount of certain bacteria can make you sick, according to the guide.

If a food or drink tastes bad, you should spit it out and throw the rest away.

You should also check for symptoms of food poisoning, such as diarrhea or nausea, and contact your doctor or other healthcare professionals if symptoms worsen.

Instead, the odor test is a safer option, says the guide. If a product smells rotten, it’s probably best to throw it away.

Changes in the color or texture of a product, such as moldy bread or milk that becomes lumpy, is a sign that it is probably unsafe to eat or drink.

If a product’s packaging is dented or changes shape, it could be a sign of contamination from bacteria inside releasing gas, the guide explains.

If you open a can or jar of food and puffs of air or product come out, or there is a frothy residue, it could be a sign that the product is spoiled. You should look for other signs of contamination before you eat.

If you want more information on how long specific products are likely to stay safe before and after opening, you can check out the FoodKeeper Application from

WebMD Health News


US PIRG Education Fund: “Best Before” vs. “Use Before”: What You Need To Know About Food Dating. “

BlueTriton: “How to store bottled water?

US Department of Agriculture: “Food Waste FAQ”, “Winning the Food Waste Reduction Initiative”.

Feed America: “How We Tackle Food Waste in the United States.”

Pennsylvania General Assembly: “2021-2022 Regular Session, Senate Bill 434”.

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