What Food Freshness Dates Really Mean

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More than 90 percent of Americans have been throwing away food that's safe to eat because they're misinterpreting food labels, suggests a 2013 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The average U.S. household throws away an estimated $275 to $455 worth of food each year due to confusion about food-date labeling.

Many consumers assume a date on a food label is an indication of when the product will go bad. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat, poultry, and egg products, clearly states that "it is not a safety date."

What do food dates mean?


Rather than warning when a food will spoil, many dates reflect the last day the manufacturer has determined the product will be at peak quality. These include:

  • "Use By"
  • "Best By"
  • "Best If Used By"
  • "Best Before"

Beyond this date, the flavor, texture, or nutritional value may have diminished, but the food is likely still safe to eat -- assuming it has been stored and handled properly.

"Sell by" dates, often seen on prepackaged, perishable foods, are there for the retailer, not the consumer. The "sell by" date is last day a producer suggests that grocers keep the product on the shelf. The USDA provides guidelines for how long consumers should be able to store various meat and egg products beyond their "sell by" date before cooking or freezing. (One food with notable longevity: refrigerated eggs, which can last three to five weeks after purchase.)

All that said, these terms do not have standard definitions. Aside from requirements for "use by" dates on infant formula and some baby foods, there is very little federal oversight of food dating. Many states have enacted their own laws, although the lack of uniformity adds to confusion.

In its report, the NRDC recommends several industry-wide changes, including:

  • Making "sell by" dates invisible to consumers, as they're intended for retailers.
  • Replacing "best before" labels on shelf-stable and non-perishable foods with "best within XX days of opening."
  • Encouraging the use of "freeze by" dating, an important reminder that consumers can safely extend the life of many perishable foods by freezing them for later use.

When does food actually go bad?


It's impossible to list the exact date food will spoil; too much depends on how food is handled and stored during transit, at the store, and after it's brought home. But there are some resources that can help.

The USDA has developed a FoodKeeper app with storage timelines for hundreds of different foods. The app also shares cooking tips for meat products, since food-borne illnesses are often the result of improper handling or cooking.

Eat By Date and StillTasty let visitors search for specific foods or browse food types and see estimated times food will last beyond the freshness date. For instance, Eat By Date shows that unopened sour cream can last for one to two weeks past the date, but opened sour cream should be eaten within seven to 10 days. Based on Eat By Date's data, Thrillist has created an infographic that lists guidelines for 35 common foods and drinks.

The starting point for consumers should be learning to read the dates for what they are: a guideline for how long a store should sell a product or when the product will be at its best -- not an expiration date. Similarly, keep in mind that food isn't necessarily good beyond this date. If a gallon of milk is left in a hot car for several hours, it may have gone bad even if the "best by" date is a week away. Common sense can be a shopper's best guide.