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Everything You Need to Know About Sell-by Dates

Waste less food and money by learning the difference between use-by, best-before, sell-by, and expiration dates.
sustainability September 2023

Whether on a gallon of milk or your favorite box of cereal, you’ve probably  encountered  a confusing label with a date stamped on foods at the grocery store. Throwing out your milk based on that date? Not so fast. Depending on where you live, you  might see one of four dates: best if used by, use by, sell by, or expires on.  Breathe a sigh of relief if you’ve accidentally fed your family canned soup past the date on the label. None are related to food safety.  

Best if used by and use-by  are both an estimate of the product’s peak freshness and flavor. Since there isn’t a national standard, these dates can often be left up to the producer to determine, so you keep buying their cookies when they are crisp. Retailers use the sell-by date to determine when to rotate items off the shelf to ensure quality. Only infant formula food should not be consumed past the use-by date, according to the FDA. Though ominous sounding, the expires on date refers to products not working as intended, think cake mix not rising or yeast not activating.

Packaged goods can be enjoyed long after their sell-by date if they are properly stored and haven’t been opened. Pantry-favorite canned goods can last up to five years, and dried pasta and rice can last up to two years. Fresh items like eggs, dairy, and meat should be consumed closer to their sell-by date. Use or freeze ground meat one to two days after the sell-by date, steak and other cuts of beef within three to five days after, and eggs three to five weeks after.

Foods that smell sour or look moldy should be thrown out.  

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