Expiration dates explained

Use-By, Sell-By, and Best-By Dates – What’s the Difference?

16/Dec/16 / 21:47

Imagine the following scenario: It’s Monday morning, you’ve poured yourself a bowl of cereal and – still rubbing the sleep from your eyes – you open the fridge to grab the half empty gallon of milk on the shelf. Much to your dismay, the container is stamped with an expiration date of yesterday in red, foreboding letters. You freeze in place – what should you do? Do you risk it and eat your cereal? Or do you pour the rest of the milk down the drain for fear of making yourself or your children sick?

In 2013, ABC News(1) reported that Americans throw out a staggering amount of food – more than $2,200 worth – each year. This is understandable, considering the great confusion that surrounds Use-By, Sell-By, and Best Used By dates. By learning which foods are safe to eat after these dates and which should absolutely be tossed, you can reduce both your grocery bill and unnecessary food waste.

Use-By Date

What to Know: These dates are typically found on refrigerated goods. This stamp indicates that the food is at its peak quality on or before this date.
Keep or Toss? Use caution if you consume food past its Use-By date, as the quality of the food decreases rapidly after the date has passed.

Sell-By Date

What to Know: These dates are typically found on bread, dairy, and meat. It helps grocery stores know when to pull unsold food from the shelf and does not mean that the product is unsafe to consume after the date has passed.
Keep or Toss? According to the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, “one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the Sell-By date” and may still be safe to consume.


What to Know: These dates are typically found on items like crackers and chips. This is the suggested date by which the product should be consumed to ensure ideal quality.
Keep or Toss? While the quality of the food may diminish after this date, it is generally still safe to consume for a reasonable period of time – while its shelf-life is still active. Your sense of smell and taste will help you determine if you should eat or toss out the rest. (2)

Jena Roberts of the National Food Lab(1) offers a few additional suggestions:

  • Bagged Produce: Consume or throw out by the dates on the package
  • Meat: Stick to the dates on the package, unless the meat is frozen
  • Eggs: Safe to eat up to three weeks after the date on the package if cooked all the way through
  • Condiments: Bacteria cannot grow in mustard and ketchup, so they are safe to eat after the date on the package
  • Processed Food (kept in your pantry): Depending on the item, they can be safe to consume six months up to two years after the date on the package.

If you’re still not sure whether you should eat the last few globs of “expired” peanut butter, visit StillTasty.com. This resource lets you type in any food – fresh, frozen, or canned – to learn how long you can keep the item in the refrigerator, freezer, pantry, etc. It also provides valuable tips on how best to store various foods.

Feeding America states that 42 million Americans live in food-insecure households.(3) Let’s be sure we each do our part in reducing unnecessary food waste by striving to make more informed decisions about purchasing, storing, and consuming food.

How You Can Help:


  • Volunteer at one of our Centers in Geneva, Rockford or Park City sorting and packing food
  • Donate to help us provide fresh produce and healthy meals to hungry neighbors and their families.

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(1) Vega, Cecilia. “Get the ‘Real Answers’ on What Those Food Expiration Labels Mean.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
(2) Brackett, Bob, PhD. “The Difference between “Use-By” “Sell-By” and “Best-By” Dates.” The Difference between “Use-By” “Sell-By” and “Best-By” Dates – IFT.org. Institute of Food Technologists, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
(3) “Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics.” Feeding America. Feeding America, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.