What do those sell by dates on cartons of milk and meat mean? This short guide will educate you about all of those labels that you see on many of the foods you purchase and whether you should ever purchase an item which has passed its sell by date.
What Do the Dates Mean?
You may see a date on a variety of foods that you purchase sitting next to a label that reads "sell by," "best before," "best if used by," or "use by." They mean different things, and they may not have anything to do with the safety of the food.
- Sell by: Contrary to popular belief, this date actually has nothing to do with the safety of the food. This date is used by the store to determine when they should sell an item. They will often stock items with earlier sell by dates in front of items with later ones, so they’ll sell earlier. If you purchase an item after its sell by date, it’s not that the food has gone bad. It may no longer have the best quality, but as long as it is handled and stored properly, it should be safe for consumption.
- Best before: Best before dates listed on a product give you the date at which the product still has the best quality. You’ll usually find this date on non-perishable products. Purchasing a product after this date is still safe— it is just no longer at its freshest.
- Best if used by: This is equivalent to best before.
- Use by: Of all the product dating, this one is the most important. If a product is not used by this date, you should not use it. You run the risk of getting sick. You will only find a use by date on perishable products—usually accompanied by a sell by date. If you don’t plan to use a food by its use by date, freeze it. Frozen foods can be stored indefinitely. If you freeze an item after its use by date, it may not have the best quality, but it will by safe. Never purchase any food, however, that has passed its use by date.
Legality of Sell by Dates
While most people consider product dating to be a legally mandated task that companies must adhere to, the truth is that companies have no federal requirements to put sell by dates on their food. State laws vary and may require it, but it will vary from state to state. The only foods that companies are required to date is infant food.
How Long You Can Wait?
Here is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) recommendation of when foods should be used after purchase:
- 1 to 2 days for chicken
- 3 to 5 days for beef, veal, pork and lamb
- 1 to 2 days for ground beef or poultry
- 1 to 2 days for fresh variety meats
- 5 to 7 days for cured ham
- 1 to 2 days for sausage
- 3 to 5 weeks for eggs
Processed or cooked foods can wait several days more.