What the ‘Sell By’ Date Really Means (and other helpful food storage tips)

Every year, people in the U.K. throw away more than 93 million gallons of milk, 733,000 tons of potatoes and 473,000 tons of bread, according to U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.1 Similarly, the average U.S. family of four wastes more than 2 million calories, which equates to $1,500 worth of food, every year.2

Wilted or spoiled produce, moldy bread, or leftovers that sit too long in the fridge are common contributors to such food waste, but so are potentially good foods that get thrown away solely based on their “sell by” dates.

Labels like “use by” and “sell by” on foods aren’t actually an indicator of food safety, as many believe them to be.

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard even found that more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing out food prematurely because of misunderstandings of what such dates actually mean.3

The researchers concluded that food dates generally lead to good food getting thrown away and may at the same time prompt you to eat a food that’s actually spoiled because of “undue faith in date labels.”

There Is No Universally Accepted System for Food Dating in the U.S.

More than 20 U.S. states require dating of some foods, but such labels vary significantly in different areas of the country. With the exception of infant formula, there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the U.S., nor is there any federal requirement for food dates.

In other words, it’s a veritable free for all. Food may be labeled with “open dating,” which refers to use of a calendar date, or “closed” or “coded” dating, which refers to dates that are written in code for use by the manufacturer.

The latter may be used for shelf-stable products (cans, boxes, etc.) while open dating is typically found on perishable foods including meat, eggs and dairy products.

How to Decipher Food Product Dating Labels

There are other food-dating labels that you may see as well, and while many regard them as interchangeable, each actually has it’s own unique meaning, as follows:

Sell By — Not Even Meant for Consumers

“Sell by” dates aren’t meant for consumer use at all. They are there as tools to help retailers ensure proper product turnover when stocking shelves, yet many consumers believe it is a measure of food safety.

The dates lead to so much confusion and food waste that the NRDC report authors suggested making “sell by” dates invisible to consumers. That being said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states you should buy the product before the “Sell By” date expires.4

Best if Used By (or Before) — Not a Measure of Food Safety

This date is set by the manufacturer to suggest when to consume the food by for best flavor or quality. However, it is not a measure of safety and foods can typically be safely consumed after the “best by” or “best before” date, often with minimal, if any, changes in taste or texture.

Food manufacturers want you to consume their products at their peak freshness and flavor, which means many set food dates conservatively. The methods used by manufacturers to set food dates vary. NRDC explained: (continue reading)

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