Food Use-By, Sell-By, and Best-By (What it all Means)

 Food Use-By, Sell-By, and Best-By (What it all Means)

Billions of pounds of food goes to waste every year for the pure fact that people do not understand the difference between the use-by, sell-by, and best-by dates on their food packaging.

We all do it when we’re out shopping for groceries, scanning items for dates, which is a good thing, but it is fairly useless unless you understand what they mean.

We will briefly look at each of these in the list below and then we’ll take a look at each of these labels in more detail.

In short, these labels mean:

  • Use-By – aimed at consumers as a directive of the date by which the product should be eaten. Mostly because of quality, not because the item will necessarily make you sick but product quality is likely to go down much faster and safety could be lessened.
  • Sell-By – aimed at retailers to show when the product should be sold or removed from shelf life. This does not mean that the product is unsafe to consume after the date. Typically one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.
  • Best-By – suggestion to the consumer on which date the product should be consumed to assure for ideal quality.

None of the three labels above actually refer to food safety. 


Food use by date

The “use-by” date refers to the final day that the product will be at its optimum freshness, flavor, and texture. The taste will start to deteriorate after this date although it will still be edible. It is just that flavor and texture will not be at their peak.

You will usually see use-by date labels on baked goods and snack foods. Many snacks and bread products contain preservatives that help them last longer. So, if the use-by date on your bread or snack expires, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its gone bad.

Snacks such as potato chips, crackers, pretzels, and popcorn last long after their “Use-By” date. For example, popcorn can last for up to two years. To keep baked goods fresh, store them in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer or refrigerator.

Beverages also often carry Use-By dates. For instance, water bottles usually have a two-year “Use-By” date printed on their label, but if the bottle is unopened, it is generally safe to drink.


Food sell by date

The “sell-by” term you often see on food product labels refers to the last day that a retailer can have the product on display on a store shelf. It is believed that food items are safe to eat for up to 10 days after the “sell-by” date, if kept properly stored.

Meat and Poultry usually have “sell-by” dates to look for. If you do not intend to use the meat you purchase within 1 or 2 days of purchasing it, it is recommended that you freeze it. The same recommendation pertains to poultry within in 3 to 5 days of its purchase. By freezing these items you can keep them fresh for up to a year.

Dairy and eggs also have “sell-by” dates to be aware of. Once purchased proper refrigeration temperatures is 40 degrees and warned against leaving the items out of the refrigerator for long periods of time.

Milk should last 5 to 7 days after the sell by date, while cheeses can range up to two weeks after the sell by date for soft cheeses such as cream cheese or Brie. For harder cheeses such as cheddar or Romano, shelf life is anywhere from three to six months after the sell by date, if stored properly. To keep foods fresh, refrigerator temperatures are recommended to be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

Dates listed on egg cartons are sometimes confused with expiration dates. These dates are guidelines for consumers after the point of purchase. Eggs are edible raw for up to 5 weeks after the date as long as they are not cracked or damaged in anyway.


Food best by date

The “Best before” dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.

“Best before” dates are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.

Eggs have a shelf life of 28 days (from date laid to best before date). By law, eggs must reach the final consumer within 21 days from the date they have been laid. This date is known as the sell-by date.

After this date, the quality of the egg will deteriorate. If any salmonella bacteria are present, they could multiply to high levels and could make a person ill.

This means eggs need to be delivered to the consumer at least 7 days before the best before date. The consumer then has 7 days to use the eggs at home.

Every year, we throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink in the UK, most of which could have been eaten. So think carefully before throwing away food past its “best before” date.

Remember, the “best before” date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as “store in a cool dry place” or “keep in the fridge once opened”.

So have a good think next time you plan on throwing food away just because the date has passed. If it has been stored correctly, there is no reason as to why it can’t be eaten.

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