What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean?

by Melissa Chichester

Imagine this familiar scene: It’s a busy weeknight, dinner isn’t prepared, and all that’s left in the fridge is an array of ingredients with questionable expiration dates. That brings us to the inevitable smell test that occurs when the dates seem a little too risky. But what do these expiration and “best by” dates really mean on food labels?

Food dating history

You would think food dating came about due to a sophisticated scientific process, but the history is rather murky on where expiration dating began. Some speculation credits Al Capone with insisting that milk have an expiration date. In Europe, sell-by dates came about in a grocer’s storeroom before going public in the early 1970s. A supermarket survey taken in the 1960s revealed that the advent of more packaged foods had customers requesting freshness dates. Essentially, the ever-evolving food industry resulted in the way our food dates are labeled today. Unfortunately, the language behind food labeling can be confusing.

Food labeling myths and facts

The United States Department of Agriculture cites that the average American throws away one pound of food per day. Many misconceptions about food dating contribute to this number, in addition to not using food fast enough or simply forgetting about it as it hangs out in the pantry for too long.

The Natural Resources Defense Council found that a whopping 90 percent of Americans do not read food date labeling properly.

One of the largest myths behind food labeling is that the government decides what dates are acceptable. In reality, only infant formula has federal laws behind its date on the label.

There is also a difference between “sell by,” “best if used by,” and “use by.”

Use by: This is the best quality guarantee set by the manufacturer. If this language is used on infant formula, it is the law.

Sell by: This is a manufacturing recommendation that notifies stores when to remove the product from the shelf. A sell by date gives consumers the freshest products. You have probably noticed markdowns on expired “sell by” dates at the grocery store. In many cases, a sell by date helps stores manage inventory.

Best if used by: This indicates when food will be of the best quality and flavor.

A note about safety

These labels tell a different story when comparing perishable and non-perishable items.

Items that expire quickly, like eggs, meat, and dairy, follow voluntary labeling expiration guidelines.

Under those guidelines, food manufacturers have a choice whether they want to label food with either an expiration, sell by, best by, or use by date that includes both the month and day. If they choose any of these options, the month and day must be truthful and not misleading based on stability testing established by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). While there are still no federal regulations regarding the dates of these products, they spoil at a much faster rate than pre-packaged food. Freezing, composting, and keeping the refrigerator organized are always ways to avoid wasting foods that expire quickly.