Sell-By Date, Use-By Date, and Expiration Date Labels – What’s the Difference?!

When you’re out shopping for groceries, you are probably scanning items for dates, whether it is an expiration date, a sell-by date, or a use-by date. Looking for those label terms is a good thing, but do you know what they mean? The terms can be confusing so let me break them down for you.

The Confusion with “Best-before” and “Sell-by” labels in Britain

Right now, in Britain, there is the chance that food label dating will be overhauled because the terms “best-before” and “sell-by” have proved to be confusing to consumers. It is estimated that 8.3 million tons of food waste is produced each year, and 5.3 million of it could have been eaten.

This waste is costing households hundreds of dollars a year, and of course, affects greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that British households throw out an average of 5 million potatoes, 4.4 million apples, a million loaves of bread and slices of ham per year. Much of food thrown away is still perfectly fine to eat.

Now it is being proposed that new, more informative labels be placed on products rather than vague ones that can easily be misunderstood. The new labels are intended to be foolproof, leaving less room for confusion.

Say Goodbye to Sell-By Labels in the UK?

It was reported that the government has advised firms throughout the UK that “use-by” and “best-before” are terms that should be used on food labels rather than “sell-by.”It had been debated that the confusion behind the “sell-by” term has led to an abundance of food waste in the UK.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman explained in an interview that she wants confusing labeling statements, especially sell-by dates, removed from food packaging. “We want to end the food labeling confusion and make it clear once and for all when food is good and safe to eat,” she said in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program.

“Best Before” and “Sell by” Dates in the USA

In the United States, food dating is basically unregulated by state and federal governments.  Manufacturers and retail stores are responsible for maintaining safe food on the shelves for consumers, and they develop their own label terms and claims.

The following date terms grace labels all over USA grocery stores:

  • “Sell-By” Date – What does that mean?

The “sell-by” term you often see on food product labels refers to the last day that a retailer can have the product on display on a store shelf. It is believed that food items are safe to eat for up to 10 days after the “sell-by” date, if kept properly stored.

Meat and Poultry usually have “sell-by” dates to look for. If you do not intend to use the meat you purchase within 1 or 2 days of purchasing it, it is recommended that you freeze it. The same recommendation pertains to poultry within in 3 to 5 days of its purchase. By freezing these items you can keep them fresh for up to a year.

Dairy and eggs also have “sell-by” dates to be aware of. Once purchased proper refrigeration temperatures is 40 degrees and warned against leaving the items out of the refrigerator for long periods of time.

Milk should last 5 to 7 days after the sell by date, while cheeses can range up to two weeks after the sell by date for soft cheeses such as cream cheese or Brie. For harder cheeses such as cheddar or Romano, shelf life is anywhere from three to six months after the sell by date, if stored properly. To keep foods fresh, refrigerator temperatures are recommended to be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

Dates listed on egg cartons are sometimes confused with expiration dates. These dates are guidelines for consumers after the point of purchase. Eggs are edible raw for up to 5 weeks after the date as long as they are not cracked or damaged in anyway.

  • “Use-By” Date – What does that mean?

The “use-by” date refers to the final day that the product will be at its optimum freshness, flavor, and texture. After this recommended date, the food taste deteriorates. It may still be edible, but flavor and texture will not be at their peak.

Baked goods and snack foods generally sport Use-By Date labels. Many snacks and bread products contain preservatives that help them last longer. So, if the use-by date on your bread or snack expires, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its gone bad. Snacks such as potato chips, crackers, pretzels, and popcorn last long after their “Use-By” date. For example, popcorn can last for up to two years. To keep baked goods fresh, store them in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer or refrigerator.

Beverages also often carry Use-By dates. For instance, water bottles usually have a two-year “Use-By” date printed on their label, but if the bottle is unopened, it is generally safe to drink.

  • Expiration Date – What does that mean?

This is the most to the point, simple food label there is – it means exactly what it says! If the expiration date is past, don’t use it.

Canned goods frequently carry Expiration Dates. The length of freshness varies depending on the amount of acids in the canned goods. Canned foods like peas and carrots contain low amounts of acid and have a shelf life of 2 to 5 years. High-acid canned foods like citrus fruits and tomatoes have a shelf life of only a year to a year and a half.

So, what do YOU make of these food label dates?

After all of that explanation, do these terms make sense to you or do you find them too confusing to be useful? My questions for you are:

  • Do you agree with what Britain wants to do with simplifying “use-by” or “best before” labels?
  • Would simpler, more defined labels keep you from “wasting” food?

More Info on Food Product Labeling:

Bin the best-before label, not the food

Decoding Food Expiration Dates

FSIS Food Product Dating Fact Sheet

Print Your Own Food Labels with a QuickLabel Label Printer

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