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Is food really good until the ‘best by’ date? How to interpret the confusing labels

Even if date on product has passed, chances are, it’s still good, USDA says

Expiration date.
Expiration date. (Graham Media Group 2021)

We’ve come a long way since early 2020, when many grocery stores struggled to keep their shelves stocked as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the globe.

And while things certainly look better where grocery stores are concerned, we certainly don’t want to waste any food right now, and we also want to ensure we keep ourselves and our family as healthy as we can.

So, in order to take advantage of the food we buy for as long as possible, we wanted to know: How long is something actually good for? When is it really time to throw it out?

It turns out the “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” labels on foods do not mean the same thing.

For quick reference, here’s what each date means:

Best by: This date indicates when something is at its peak quality or flavor.

Sell by: This date refers to how long a store should display or sell an item.

Use by: This is the last recommended day a product can be eaten at peak quality.

But wait -- none of these dates tell when food is actually expired.

So when should you throw something out? Here’s the rundown on common everyday foods:

The expiration dates on foods are listed simply to help people verify how fresh the food is, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not to indicate when the food is no longer safe to eat.

Yet, 84% of people throw out food when it’s close to the “expiration” date, Time reports.

The USDA said even if the date on your product has passed, chances are, it’s still good, so you don't need to be so hasty in throwing out food. In short, all those dates on your food ultimately refer to quality, not safety.

The USDA pointed out that the bacteria that causes food poisoning does not grow in the freezer, so regardless of how long something has been in the freezer, it should be safe to eat for some time (assuming it was put in the freezer during a safe timeframe).

When it comes down to it, you should be able to see, smell or taste when a food has gone bad. If you’re still not sure, the USDA has created a comprehensive app called Foodkeeper that shows which foods last how long. Click here to learn more about it.


About the Author:

Dawn is a Digital Content Editor who has been with Graham Media Group since April 2013. She graduated from Texas State University with a degree in electronic media.