“Use by, best by and sell by” are messages shoppers frequently see in grocery stores. However, these messages can often stir up some confusion among consumers.
Most consumers can probably identify with being baffled by the stickers labeled on the products they buy. When to throw away certain foods can be somewhat of a mystery — but it does not have to be.
“Our food labeling system is very confusing,” Lynne Frichtl, registered dietician for Student Health Services, said. “A big part of this confusion is that many of the dates put on food are put there by the food company and are poorly regulated.”
The “sell by” date is to be used by the grocery store, not the consumer, she explained. That is when the product needs to be either sold or removed by.
Stores want the product to look as appealing to consumers as possible when they are on the shelves. The “sell by” date is the last day the item is at its best quality, but the product can actually be consumed long after that. Products like milk are still good up to five days after the sell by date if stored the properly.
“‘Best before’ or ‘best use’ dates are arbitrary dates made up by the manufacturers to indicate when the product is at its very best quality and does not indicate food safety,” Frichtl said.
Also, the “expiration date” is usually put on fresh foods like meat and dairy, she added. “The product should be consumed by this date with the exception of eggs, which are good for five weeks.”
While it is quite simple to figure out the meanings of these labels, it is still important for buyers to be able to discern for themselves when to throw food away.
“I do think that the date labeling system can cause confusion, but it does not have to,” Arthur Valentine, Nutrition and Healthy Living graduate assistant for Health Promotion and Wellness Division of Student Affairs, said. “Food producers like to give consumers a hint as to when the food will begin to lose its maximal taste or freshness.”
However, the date on the package under “use by, best by or sell by” is not necessarily when the food becomes unsafe or completely inedible — it may not just taste or look as good, he added.
“I do think that many consumers fall victim to throwing foods away prematurely. If we see something, spinach for example, that doesn’t look exactly like it did the day we bought it … we think it’s time to go … a better understanding of when a good can still be consumed would go a long way in curbing that problem.”
Valentine advises consumers to use their senses and not to overly rely on the visual appearance, because these can be misleading — unless there are obvious tell-tale signs like mold or some kind of growth, in which case the product should be tossed.
Dairy is usually safe until about a week after the sell by date, while meats such as chicken, pork or beef can be good for a long time if they are frozen properly.
“I honestly think it comes down more to safe storage than to the product itself,” Valentine said. “If we can adhere to the rules of food safety, we can extend the shelf life of our products.”