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Cooking Tips

The Difference Between Best By, Sell By, and Use By Dates

Let’s clear up some confusion about the dates on your food.
By Published Sept. 27, 2022

At some point, you’ve probably looked at a little tag on a loaf of bread or seen the faded date stamped on a bottle of ketchup (or even beer!) that reads “best by,” “use by,” or “sell by” and wondered if it’s safe to eat.

Or maybe you're packing for a move and trying to figure out what to keep and what to toss.

The bread might look fine, but the “best by” date was yesterday. Do you chance a piece of toast? Or that container of Greek yogurt passes the sniff test, but the “sell by” date is a week ago. And what about those eggs?

There can be a lot of confusion on what these terms mean. We talked to our science editor, Paul Adams, to get to the bottom of it.

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What’s the main difference between these terms?

First, none of the terms are regulated or officially defined. And its confusing! The FDA recommends that manufacturers stick to the label best if used by to avoid confusion (and unnecessarily thrown-out food).

But that certainly isnt standardized. There are three main labels youll likely see on packaging:

  • Use by is typically for foods that are considered perishable, such as meat and dairy products like cheese
  • Best by is more of a guideline for the customer and indicates when a products quality may start to decline. Generally, the products flavor and texture may diminish after this date. (You might notice that your tortilla chips may be a little less crunchy, for example.)
  • Sell by dates are more for the retailer—a date by which shelved products can be sold before they need to be moved off the shelf for new products.

However, none of these terms are meant to convey food safety.

Manufacturers dont do safety-related labeling for the most part because it gives them a liability. If a company provides a date and something spoils before that date, theyre on the hook.

So, how can you tell when something should be thrown out?

These dates are not strict guidelines. Generally, customers should buy the latest date available for the best product quality.

The shelf life of food varies so much depending on how it is stored that a specific date can’t be precise. (Fun fact: expired cocoa powder is fine to useeven years past its expiration date.)

Rather than using best-by dates as definitive indicators of whether a product has spoiled, it helps to use them in tandem with your senses to make a decision.

Smell is an excellent marker in determining whether a product has gone bad. Texture is also important. Sliminess, especially regarding meat, can be a sign of bacterial growth and spoilage. Additionally, if the product’s color seems off, you may want to hold off on eating it.

Unopened products with a good amount of acidity (think: condiments like mustard or hot sauce) are a little trickier. You most likely won’t become ill after consuming unopened mustard a few weeks or months after its best date, but it may not be quite as delicious as it would have been.

A few words to live by: When in doubt, throw it out. It’s not worth risking an upset stomach (or worse!) if something looks or smells off.

A great way to reduce the amount of meat and produce you’re throwing away is by storing food that you don’t plan on eating within the week in your freezer. You can also compost rotten produce and stale bread to reduce the amount of methane emissions created from wasted food.

Bottom line: These terms only refer to the quality of the product and are not about danger. Use your senses, not just the date on the package, to make your final decision.