Home Food Policy Decoding “Best By” Labels

Decoding “Best By” Labels


By: Heather Williams

Every food package has them, but what do they mean?  The best by date on perishable and non-perishable food items can be more complicated than they appear at first glance.  The date is not a “set in stone” date that the food must be thrown away or you risk spending your night sitting in sickness in the least popular room in the house.  In fact, the only food that requires that you should not consume it past the printed date on the package is infant formula.  The dates on every other food is simply a guideline.  The United States wastes a huge amount of food each year to misunderstanding the packaging dates on foods.  This adds up to an estimated 160 billion pounds of food wasted in the United States each year.  In a recent survey, 84% of people polled said that they throw away food after it has passed the “best by” date stamped on the package.

There is a lot of confusion as to what the date on the package actually means, as it is not an indicator of food spoilage or food safety.  “The whole dating thing is kind of confusing, because people want to throw away things after these dates,” said Sandra Brown, Food Safety and Nutrition faculty at Washington State University Clark County Extension.  “The key to all of those dates is all about quality.”

The only “use by” label required and under inspection by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on infant formula.  According to the FDA, baby food should not be used after the “use by” date printed on the package because the quality of the formula may deteriorate after that time and may not meet the nutritional claims on the label.

All other labels such as “best by,” “best if used before,” and “sell by” dates are entirely voluntary and have meaning that range from place to place and from product to product.  These dates have nothing to do with food safety or spoilage of the product and more to do with the quality of the product after that date.

If you are confused so far, you are not alone.  In a May 2016 food survey by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic highlighted this ambiguity.  According to the survey about 70% of people believed that “best if used by” phrase referred to food quality and 13% of people thought it was an indicator of safety.  When asked about the phrase “use by,” 40% thought it referred to quality and 42% believed it to be an indicator of food safety.  According to the FDA, food not showing signs of spoilage should still be considered wholesome and can be sold, purchased, donated, and consumed after the “best by” date has passed.

The FDA suggests to examine the food to determine if it has spoiled or reduced so much in quality that you wish to not consume it.  Brown explains, “In general, if it looks bad, smells bad, has a poor texture, of course you won’t eat it.”

What Makes Food Go Bad?

There are two type of bacteria that affect food.  Spoilage bacteria that causes food to deteriorate but does not cause illness, and Pathogenic bacteria that contaminates food and can cause illness.  To reduce the risk of pathogenic bacterial growth, proper handling of perishable foods is required.  Do not keep perishable foods out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.  Also be sure to use clean utensils to remove food, particularly in multiple use containers.  This applies to both store-bought and homemade foods.  Additionally, cook foods to appropriate internal temperatures for the specific food type to kill any pathogenic bacteria.

What Goes Into Deciding the Dates on Packages?

When considering a date for the best quality of the product, manufactures look at many variables.  From the length of time and temperature the product will be held during distribution and sale, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging used for the product are all considered.  For example, particular ingredients in a fresh sausage may increase shelf life of the product as well as packaging options such as controlled atmosphere of the product or vacuum sealing.

So What Do the Labels Mean?

While there is no universal accepted descriptions for labels, there are a few commonly used phrases.  These indications are only general and may not apply to every manufacturer.

“Best if Used By/Before” – This is an indicator of when a product will be the best flavor or quality.  This does not imply a purchase or safety date.

“Sell-By” – This dates tells retailers how long the product should be on display for sale and is a date for inventory management purposes.  This does not imply a safety date.

“Use-By” – The date is the last date recommended for the product to be consumed at the peak quality.  This date only indicates safety when on infant formula.  All other products, this date does not imply a safety date.

How Long is Food Good After I Open It?

We have determined the date stamped on the package does not necessarily affect the safety of food, but what about after the package is opened?  For some foods, a count-down clock starts.  Most foods are packaged in such a way to prevent spoilage.  After the package is opened, air and the environment are introduced to the foods.  For milk and cottage cheese, that timeline becomes one week after opening.  Refrigerated eggs have a timeline of three to five weeks after date of purchase.  Unopened packages of lunch meats can last for two weeks, but upon opening the clock starts and it should be consumed within three to five days.  Poultry and ground meats last a shorter time period than fresh meats, needing to be consumed within one or two days and fresh beef, lamb, and pork are good for three to five days.

Shelf stable product have a much longer quality period.  Canned goods, for example, are good 12 to 18 months after the date stamped on the can.  Texture and quality may change after the stamped date, but the food is safe to consume.  Other lower acidity can goods such as tuna or chicken may even be good two to five years past the printed date.

Always examine food prior to eating or serving and follow appropriate temperature guidelines for each food to be safe.  If you still don’t feel comfortable with consuming a product after the printed date, consider donating it to reduce food waste.






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