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About Food Package Dates: Understanding Food Waste, Part 2

“Best if used by.”

“Sell by.”

“Use by.”

We see these phrases on almost every grocery product we purchase, but what is their purpose? Do they really help us, as consumers, determine when a product is no longer “good”?

The short answer is: no. But understanding them is an important component in reducing food waste.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), providing a date on products is not required. By providing dates on products, manufacturers are trying to inform consumers of when food is of best quality. Because these dates are voluntarily applied, the product must be labeled in a way that is truthful and not misleading.

So if the dates are not required, what is their purpose?

“Best if Used By/Before”: this tells the consumer when the product will be of best flavor or quality

“Sell By”: this tells the store how long the product should be displayed, for inventory purposes

“Use By”: this tells the consumer the last date recommended to use the product for it to be at peak quality

What if the product isn’t used by these dates? Don’t fret! Your food product should still be safe to consume—if it has been handled properly—until spoilage is apparent.

Some products, however, do require dates be printed on them, such as infant formula. Depending on the egg laws in the state the eggs are marketed, egg cartons may be required to have a “Sell By” or expiration (“EXP”) date. Fun fact: if a “sell by” date appears on an egg carton that has the USDA grade shield, the date may not exceed 30 days from the pack date.

So how does this help?

It can actually limit food waste. By knowing the meaning behind the dates, you will be less likely to discard food that can still be consumed, thereby using more of the product you purchased before throwing it away.

The next time you are looking through the fridge, ready to purge expired products, take a minute to look at the dates on packages and double check the product. You may be surprised at how much you can keep.