Dates on Foods and What They Mean

Updated on January 17, 2020
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Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She researches and shares remedies for using certain products for illnesses.

date on a milk jug
date on a milk jug

Understanding Dates on Foods

Some people are very confused when it comes to understanding what all those dates on foods mean even though they have been grocery shopping for many years. They are not hard to understand once shoppers have had a quick and easy tutorial.

Unfortunately, some foods are thrown out because people do not understand the dates. It would be good to know that some of the dates are about quality, and some of the dates are about safety. Some of the dates are for store employees and are not for consumers at all.

The goal of this article is to explain clearly what each date means so households can stop throwing out foods that can be safely consumed.

Did You Know?

"Best before" dates are about quality, not safety.

Most food packaging will have one or more of three date labels:

  1. best before
  2. use by
  3. sell by

Best Used By or Best Used Before
Product will be at its best quality and taste.
Not a safety date
Sell By Date
For the store to know how long to display item
Not a safety date
Use By Date
Last date recommended for consumption when food is at its peak quality
Not a safety date except or eggs and infant formula
best before date
best before date

"Best Before" Date

Whenever an item has a "best before" date, it suggests the quality of the food will be at its peak if eaten before the date listed. The date is only to advise the consumer that the quality of the food might be different from what it was when it was first purchased if eaten after that date. For instance, bread may be eaten after the best before date. However, it will not be as fresh as the date you purchased it, but you can still use it for toast, croutons, or even bread pudding.

It is helpful to know that the best before date is about quality which includes flavor, freshness, crispness, smell, and texture. The date has nothing to do with safety except when it comes to eggs and baby formula.

Eggs could contain salmonella. Therefore, make sure you eat your eggs according to the best before date that is printed on the carton and not from the date you purchased them from your local grocery store.

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"Best Used By" or "Best By" Date

A best used by or best by date on a package means the food should be eaten by that date for maximum quality. Milk will spoil after the marked date. Bags of salad will turn brown and will not be fit to eat.

Not only will the quality of the food have changed by the specified date, but the safety of it comes into question as well.

There are cases where the date on the package might not be accurate. If a food container of food is opened when it should be refrigerated, the best used by date is sooner than what is marked on the container. For example, organic peanut butter should be refrigerated. If it's not, then the best used by date is not correct.

You are most likely to find the best used by date on the following foods:

  • raw meat
  • poultry
  • fish
  • milk
  • fruits
  • vegetables

best by date on a can
best by date on a can

"Display Until" or "Sell By" Date

The display until date on a product does not apply to the consumer. It is there to let shopkeepers know how long to display the product on their shelves for the best quality. Sometimes store owners will reduce the price days before the display date to get rid of those foods. Most of the products are still good. The use by date should still be honored even though you bought the product on sale because of its open date.

You have probably seen companies that deliver bread and other product emptying shelves of products with an opening date on them. They take out the old loaves and replenish the shelves with fresh loaves.

The sell-by date is mostly for the store to keep track of products that should not be sold after a particular date. You will see that prominently stamped on bags of salad. You can buy food that has already passed its display until date or sell-by date but has not reached its use by or best before date. That's before it is still safe to eat.

Some stores throw away the expired food or sell it to discount stores. The discount stores sell the food at a reduced rate.

Customers should be careful when shopping because some stores will be products with earlier dates up front on shelves so customers could buy them first. However, products have been rotated so the later days will be in the back after stores have rotated their stock.


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