Chow Line: Use-By, Sell-By, Best-By Dates Don’t All Mean the Same Thing

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I bought a carton of milk and it says, “Sell by July 25,” but today is July 28. Is the milk still OK to drink? Does the sell-by date mean the food is no longer safe to eat? What about the use-by or best-by date? I’m so confused!

Take heart. You’re not alone in your confusion. Most people aren’t sure what those date labels on food actually mean.

In fact, more than a third of consumers throw away food once the date passes because they mistakenly think the date is an indicator of food safety, according to a recent study by the Harvard University Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

But for most foods, the date label is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality. With only a few exceptions, the majority of food products remain wholesome and safe to eat long past their expiration dates, the study authors said. Infant formula is the only food product that must carry product dating under current federal law.

Confusion regarding food label dates also leads to significant food waste, with the average American household spending more than $2,000 annually on wasted food, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So what do the dates mean?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the:

  • “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or a safety date.
  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except when used on infant formula.

However, there’s some good news: The issue of consumers misinterpreting label dates might soon be less confusing.

Two major food industry groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, are asking their members to use only two date labels on their food products. The goal is for food manufactures to use only “Best if Used By/Before” and “Use By” on their packaging, with widespread voluntary adoption of the new labeling on most foods by summer 2018.

The “Best if Used By/Before” date would be used on nonperishable foods when the product might not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume after the date listed. However, the “Use-By” date would be used on highly perishable foods that have a food safety concern over time. These products should be consumed by the date listed on the package and disposed of after that date, the groups said.

In the meantime, the USDA says most food products—excluding infant formula, for example—should still be safe and wholesome after the date passes if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. Spoilage is indicated if the food has an odor or has mold, for example.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, state specialist in Community Nutrition for Ohio State University Extension

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Carolyn Gunther
OSU Extension, Community Nutrition