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Making Sense of the Use-By, Sell-By, and Best-By Labels


When you read “Best if Used By March 12” on a product, what does it really mean?

Food products are date coded in various methods. The most important dates are those on perishable products, or as Wisconsin Health Department calls, PHF (Potentially Hazardous Foods).

Here’s some information from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to help explain:

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

There are some exceptions:

Infant formula and some baby foods, for example, do not require product dating by Federal Law. Also, there is no universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, Wisconsin included, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply is not dated.

Safety After Date Expires:
Except for “Use-By” dates, product dates don’t always refer to home storage and use after purchase. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below. If product has a “Use-By” date, follow that date. If product has a “Sell-By” date or no date, cook or freeze the product promptly.

But remember, foods can spoil within the expiration date if they are mishandled. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they won’t be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn’t expired. Food borne bacteria can grow and cause illness — before or after the date on the package. Likewise, foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed any of these characteristics, it should not be used regardless of the date.

Remember: expiration dates assume that the food is properly handled after the item leaves the store.

For more information, please see:

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