There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding out there about what “best by” and expiration dates on food products actually mean, which leads to a lot of unnecessary food waste. “Household food waste accounts for 40% of all food waste in the U.s, and we estimate that 20% of household food waste is due to confusion over date labels,” says lo-Anne Berkenkamp of the Natural Resources Defense Council. (McGinty, 9-1-2019) Americans toss an estimated 30 million tons of unnecessary food waste each year by strictly adhering to ‘best by’ dates, costing the average family between $1,500 and $1,800 each year. (Wendell, 2022)

What do dates on food labels really mean?

Unfortunately, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture states, “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating 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.” Many people assume that dates on food are federally regulated, but aside from those on infant formula (which should be adhered to), they are not. “It is the manufacturer wanting to present the same quality product to their consumer every single time,” says food consultant Trevor Craig. (Wedell, 2022)

Sell-by dates

The “sell by” date is the last date that the product should be sold in stores. After that date, an item should be removed from retail stores. It does not, however, mean that the food has expired or is no longer safe to eat. Some recommend disposing of the food within 3 days of this date, but this is usually not necessary, and is just an arbitrary guideline someone thought up at random. Milk and yogurt refrigerated below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can last up to a week after this date, and refrigerated eggs are generally good for up to 5 additional weeks. The more non-perishable foods may last well beyond this.

Use-by dates

The use by date lists the last date at which the product can be used at its peak quality. The primary purpose is to allow customers to contact a manufacturer for a refund if they find the product stale before its use by date, and has little or nothing to do with safety. Commonly seen on dairy, meat, and egg products, it is typically applied to foods where safety issues increase with shelf life. We wouldn’t recommend using baby formula or baby food beyond this date, since it can lose nutrients with age.

Best if used by dates

The “best if used by” date lists when the item should be consumed in order to ensure the best flavor/quality. Once again, this date is something the manufacturer sets based on quality, not safety.

are invisible to sight and smell, so it’s the one area where you should pay attention to the date on the label. Dates on over-the-counter drug products are also meaningful, since the compounds decompose with time (losing their efficacy) and may also yield toxic compounds that cause more side effects.

If you’re a squeamish person who can’t fathom using a product past the date on its packaging, bear in mind that food banks may take these items, and so will many of your neighbors. There’s no reason it needs to go to waste.

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