Expiration dates can be confusing.

Have you ever wondered if it is okay to eat products that are past the “use by,” “best before,” “enjoy by” and other expiration dates? If so, you are not alone! Many people find these terms extremely confusing. 

The good news is there is an industry-wide effort (supported by the FDA) to simplify the language and make expiration date labelling more organized. But for now, we still need to make sense of all kinds of labels that exist out there. And there are a lot! 

Safety vs. Quality

The first thing to know is that more often than not, the dates you see on the package refer to the quality of the food, not the safety of the food. In other words, you can expect your food to look, taste and smell the best, up to the date displayed on the package. What “best” means is usually determined by the company that produced that food. 

It is also important to know that there is no single accepted guideline or federal law on how to label food products or what terms to use. Moreover, according to the FDA’s website, manufacturers are not required to place date labels about quality on any prepackaged foods at all, except for infant formula. This means the whole process is entirely voluntary and allows producers not only to choose the terms for their expiration dates, but also what date to use and for what reason.

Best before/Best if used by

Most often, companies use “best before” or “best if used by” dates. This date tells you that up to that point, the food is in its “best” quality and nutritional value (as was intended by the company that made it). After the date, it may or may not be at its best. This does not tell you, however, whether the food is safe or unsafe to eat.

Sell by/Guaranteed fresh

“Sell by” is similar to “best before” in the sense that it describes food quality. Companies use it to help stores to sell the food while it is still most appealing. Same goes for “guaranteed fresh” (usually used for baked goods), “enjoy by,” or “fresh through.” All of these terms are used to describe food quality and freshness only.

Use by

“Use By” is the most confusing as it may mean different things in different regions. It is also unregulated and up until now it was often used interchangeably with “best if used by” to show when the product is at its peak quality. Baby formula is the only exception, as it is actually required by law to have a “use by” date stamp. This date confirms that up to this point, all of the important nutrients are still present in the product. The same principle applies to baby foods, and although they don’t need to be dated, you should not use baby formula or baby food past its “use by” date.

The Future of Expiration Dates

Is your head spinning already? If yes, here is some great news! As part of the new effort to minimize confusion and to simplify expiration date labelling, major US food industry companies have endorsed the use of two terms: 

1) “Use By,”for perishable products to indicate the date after which it should be discarded, and
2) “Best if used by,” to show the date up to which a product is at its best quality. 

If everything goes as planned, you will start seeing these two terms more often than others.

Important to Remember

The important point is that none of these dates guarantee whether the product is safe to eat, or not. In theory, the longer you store something, the more chance it will go bad. But sometimes, food spoils even before the expiration date, for example if it wasn’t stored or handled properly.

You may also notice that many products approaching expiration dates are sold at a reduced price to boost sales. In case of short-dated products, use your best judgement. Do not buy perishable products (meat, poultry, dairy, etc.) if the package is damaged, it feels warm or packaging looks inflated (larger than normal). If the food is non-perishable (such as cans), short-dated products are considered safe as long as the cans are not rusting, bulging, leaking, dented or damaged in other ways.

Lastly, all the expiration dates are valid only for unopened products. Once the package is opened, you should consume the food shortly after. Oftentimes, the label will state for how many days and where you should store the food after opening. 

Learn More

If you want to know more about storing food safely, there are many tips and tricks you can find on The FoodKeeper, a free program developed cooperatively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute. You can download it on your phone or browse it from your computer. Keep safe, and til next!

Translated by Kimberly Colula.

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