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March 18, 2019

Your food's (many) expiration dates—decoded

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jul. 8, 2022.

    "Sell by." "Use by." "Best if used by." Discerning the difference between your food products' expiration labels can be confusing—so how do you know what to keep and what to toss? In the Washington Post, Consumer Reports breaks down everything you need to know about the different terminology.

    Your food label—decoded

    What those labels mean

    With the exception of baby formula, the federal government does not regulate food products' date labels, according to Consumer Reports. That's largely because the labels rarely have anything to do with the safety of your food. More often than not, the labels serve as "manufacturers' best guesses about how long their food will taste its freshest," according to Consumer Reports. They're also often used as a guide for supermarkets when stocking shelves.

    The result? Supermarkets and consumers often throw away food that has exceeded the labeled date, but is otherwise likely healthy to eat.

    So before you throw out that milk, here's a breakdown of what the labels mean, according to Consumer reports:

    • "Best if used by/before" labels refer to the date by which the food product will have the best quality and flavor. For example, a manufacturer of crackers will set a date based on when the crackers may lose their crispness;
    • "Use by" labels indicate the last date the manufacturer can guarantee the best quality of the product, but it is not an indication of the food's safety; and
    • "Sell by" labels are set for retailers—not consumers—and denote when a retailer should remove the product from its shelves to ensure it is sold during its peak quality window. Products often are safe and considered a reasonable quality for several days to several weeks after the sell by date.

    Consumer Reports writes that the dates are often conservative, "so if you eat the food past that date, you may not notice any difference in quality, especially if the date has recently passed."

    It's also worth noting the several of the world's largest consumer goods companies are in the process of simplifying their expiration labels to two options:

    • "Best if used by" for non-perishable items; and
    • "Use by" for perishable items.

    But those changes don't take effect until 2020, and those labels will not be subject to federal oversight. 

    How to know when your food is bad

    Generally speaking, canned foods can be stored for two to five years, Consumer Reports writes, while foods high in acid—such as tomatoes or pickles—can be stored for 12 to 18 months. However, perishable foods like meat and dairy have a much shorter shelf life.

    With these foods, Sana Mujahid, manager of food safety research at Consumer Reports, said you should "trust your taste buds and sense of smell." Once perishable foods have gone bad, they'll typically grow bacteria, mold, or yeast, which you will likely notice, according to Consumer Reports.

    Bacteria often thrive in warmer temperatures, so it's important to keep your perishables refrigerated. FDA recommends that you set your refrigerator no higher than 40 degrees. If a perishable food has been sitting out for two hours at room temperature or an hour in high heat, it's a good idea to throw it out, Consumer Reports writes.

    It's also essential to keep any food-preparation surfaces clean to avoid cross-contamination from other foods, such as raw meat. "The most important thing that consumers should do is follow good food-handling and storage practices, which can prevent unnecessary spoilage and ensure food safety," Mujahid said.

    How to avoid wasting your food

    There are a number of ways to avoid wasting food, Consumer Reports writes. One way is to freeze your foods, which will prevent them from going bad, as bacteria won't be able to grow. According to Tyler Lark, a food waste researcher at Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab at the University of Wisconsin, "Freezing is an excellent way to halt the aging process and extend the life of foods that might otherwise go bad or get thrown away."

    You can also save fruit that you might otherwise throw away, Consumer Reports writes. Overripe bananas and bruised apples can be used in a number of different recipes. You can also extend the life of your produce by storing it in certain ways. For example, storing broccoli in a damp paper towel, or celery in tinfoil, will prolong the food's life.

    It's also important to keep your refrigerator organized, Consumer Reports writes. Research has shown that when foods are out of sight in the refrigerator, they often get forgotten, so it can be helpful to keep your most-perishable foods right in your line of sight.

    You can also compost old food. Any expired produce or packaged items like bread can be composted and recycled, Consumer Reports writes (Consumer Reports/Washington Post, 10/8; Malo, Reuters, 9/20/2017).

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