Apr 28, 2015 • By

How to decipher the dates on food labels

There’s something about spring that motivates some of us to clean every nook and cranny.

If you’re seizing the season and scrutinizing every inch of your pantry, fridge and freezer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants you to think twice before tossing anything out.

The department just posted a video and blog post to say that some foods are fine to eat 12 to even 18 months after the date on the package. It’s part of a push to address the fact that the average person in the U.S. is wasting 36 pounds of food per month, according to the USDA.

The USDA also has developed a new app – FoodKeeper – which offers valuable storage advice about more than 400 food and beverage items, including various types of baby food, dairy products and eggs, meat, poultry, produce and seafood.


The app also will send you reminders about the potential for products that you purchased recently to spoil. FoodKeeper was created with the help of Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute.

So what do those dates on the package really mean, then?

We asked Scott Hood, director of Global Food Safety at General Mills. He says that for the vast majority of products out there, shelf life is based purely on quality – not safety.


With the exception of infant formula, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food companies to place “expired by”, “use by” or “best before” dates on food or drink products. Manufacturers voluntarily put dates on foods because they want to deliver a high quality experience.

“[The USDA statement] is probably accurate from the standpoint that you’re not going to do any harm to yourself,” says Scott. “The food still has some level of nutritional value months after the shelf life, but it may not taste very good. It may not perform the way the manufacturer intended.”

Here’s the lowdown on labels:

Use By is the date recommended by the manufacturer to use the product in order to still get peak quality. After that date, the product quality could decline.

Best if Used By/Best Before is the date recommended by the manufacturer to get the highest quality version of the product.

Sell By is the date that is a guideline for grocers. It tells the store how long to display the product for sale. However, foods with expired sell by dates can still be high quality if stored properly.

Manufacturers consider many factors when determining those dates. Changes in color, flavor and texture are a few of them.


Here’s another thing to think about – manufacturers don’t know whether the product is going to a cool climate or to a tropical zone. Foods degrade much faster in the heat and humidity.

If you’re spring cleaning, Scott says it is highly likely that the dry and canned products in your pantry are safe beyond the date printed on them. The same goes for the foods in your freezer; although, fluctuations in temperature will have a detrimental impact on quality.

It’s the foods in your fridge that you need to be more careful about. Once a container has been opened, the date on the outside doesn’t have much meaning.

“I typically say use some judgment,” says Scott. “If it looks okay and smells okay, and there appears to be nothing wrong with it, it’s likely okay.”

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