Are Dating Labels Causing You to Waste Food?

Cans of Food with Expiration Labels

For years, U.S. consumers have been diligently searching for expiration dates on food packaging and throwing out items once the date passes. However, this practice had led to a tremendous amount of food waste especially since all dates are not actually expiration dates. In fact, 90 percent of American families discard perfectly good food just because of the date on the package. It’s estimated that 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is prematurely discarded yearly. The truth is that most food is still safe to consume after the date, consumers are simply confused over the different terminology being used on various food products.

Use By, Best By, Sell By: What’s the Difference?

The three most common dates on food packages are “use by”, “best by” and “sell by.” Here’s a breakdown of what they mean.

  • Use by – This date indicates when product freshness will begin to deteriorate. However, the food is not spoiled and is still safe to eat.
  • Best by - This term is sometimes used interchangeably with “Use by.” In some locations, use by is found on more perishable packaged goods where best by is an indicator for longer shelf-life products like canned foods.
  • Sell by - This date means nothing to consumers. It helps manufacturers and stores ensure that products are sold with enough time so that they have a long shelf life after they are purchased.

Unfortunately, these terms are not regulated, meaning that manufactures can use any of them that they wish. In fact, some states don’t require any dates at all on certain items. Even more confusing is that each manufacturer can use different methods for calculating the various dates.

The Take Away for Consumers

Illness is caused by pathogens that contaminate food, not by the spoilage process. Therefore, use care to wash hands before handling food and always use clean cutting boards and storage containers. Other than that, if the food still looks good, smells goods and tastes good, it’s probably fine to eat.


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