Questions about Quality and Freshness Dates

Most (but not all) food products are labeled with a specific date that indicates when the product is no longer guaranteed to be at its best. These dates are printed for quality, not safety.

According to the USDA website, the USDA estimates food loss and waste at 30 percent of the food supply lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. One source of food waste arises from consumers or retailers throwing away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.

Provided the food has been stored properly and is undamaged, it is safe to eat “expired” packaged foods.

What Date-Labeling Phrases are Used?
There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates.

Examples of commonly used phrases:

  • “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. 

Use of these confusing and sometimes misleading terms often results is the loss of safe, healthy and viable food options. If  there is any food spoilage, it will be evident and you should discard that item, but absent any evidence to the contrary, non-perishable items retain their nutritional value and can be safely consumed after the date on the package. You should also note that the “peak quality” of a product is designated by the manufacturer and not the FDA and thus is not based in food science.

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