Understanding Food Date Labels

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“Sell by,” “Best by,” and “Use by”—food date labels are not equal, and confusion about them contributes to a large number of Americans throwing out perfectly good food.

To curb the confusion and reduce the amount of food waste, the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced in Congress in May 2016 with the aim to standardize food labels into just two labels: one for quality and one for safety.

Food date labels began appearing in the 1970s to indicate freshness—not food safety. The use by date lets you know when food should be consumed due to quality but possibly for safety as well. Discard food after the “use by” date. “Best by” dates only assure you of the ideal quality and taste of the food product. If you see “sell by” on your products, note that these dates are intended to let retailers know when unsold food should be removed from the shelf. As a consumer, purchase food before the “sell by” date, although you don’t necessarily need to consume it immediately—if you have packaged food with an expired “sell by” date, keep in mind that one-third of a product’s shelf life remains after that date.

Remember a few rules of thumb on how long you can still eat some foods past the “sell by” date (unless food products are not stored properly—look for mold): milk: one week; eggs: three to five weeks; poultry and seafood: cook or freeze within one to two days; beef and pork: cook or freeze within three to five days; canned foods (high acid): 18 months; canned food (low acid): up to five years.