There’s been quite a bit of conversation about food waste this summer. As a way of clearing up some common questions about date labels on food packages, let’s look at what they actually mean.
When browsing the shelves in a grocery store you’ll notice 4 main types of date codes on products. Each of these codes are for a specific target group and mean different things.
“best by” - This is date code is a guide for the average consumer. According to David Fikes, vice President of Consumer/Community Affairs and Communications for Food Marketing Institute, an item labeled “best by” usually means that the product will taste best by a specific date. However, the consumer may be able to consume it following that date, with a few exceptions.
“use by” - This is just another way of stating “best by” and means the same thing. Someone will have the best experience with a product prior to the “use by” or “best by” date.
“sell by” - When items are stocked on shelves, employees use the “sell by” date to determine if they can place it on the shelves for sale. Therefore, this date is targeting the retailer and not the consumer. The product will probably be just fine after the "sell by" date, but the store and manufacture want it off the shelves quickly to rotate in new stock.
“expiration date” - Baby formula and a few other baby food products may include a true “expiration date.” After the “expiration date” the nutrients in these baby-related food items may begin to diminish and not be beneficial for the infant. If an item has an "expiration date" on it, then it's there because of federal regulations.
The bottom line is that these dates have less to do with safety and more to do with quality. There are, of course, exceptions such as dairy products, fresh vegetables, and fresh meats. For these items one should check resources such as the Safe Storage chart we posted in January, 2015 or use the new FDA FookKeeper app.
A useful tool for consumers to check the safety of foods is a recently release app but he FDA called FoodKeeper. This helpful app enables consumers to look up the shelf life of food items before and after they are opened. The FDA released this app to help prevent food waste.