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What ‘Sell By’ and ‘Use By’ Dates on Food Mean

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Are you one of the millions of Americans tossing hundreds of dollars in the trash each year?

Probably so if you don’t understand those “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” labels stamped on the groceries you buy.

The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America” found that the vast majority of Americans misinterpret food labels and throw out perfectly good food. An average household of four is unnecessarily pitching $275 to $455 in food each year.

By understanding some simple terms, you can keep that money in your pocket, rather than toss it in the trash can.

“Sell by” date

If you throw out food based on the “sell by” date, you’re not alone. The study found that more than 90 percent of consumers make that mistake. Yet keeping food past that date does not mean it’s unsafe.

In reality, the sell by date is used by manufacturers to let grocery stores know they shouldn’t sell food past that date so it still has shelf life after a consumer purchases it, according to the report.

“Best before” date and “use by” date

“Best before” and “use by” dates don’t mean you should toss that food away. Those labels typically indicate the manufacturer’s estimate of when the food will be past its peak for quality, but that doesn’t mean the food is unsafe, the report says.

There’s no standard that establishes those dates. Laws vary by state, and manufacturers have their own means of setting dates. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped in to address the confusion. Amazingly, infant formula is the only product for which the date on the label is federally regulated.

Staying Safe

Given the confusion over dates, you’re probably wondering how long you can safely keep food without jeopardizing your family’s health – or your own pocketbook.

The federal government gives you good starting points. At, you’ll find recommended refrigerator and freezer storage times for various meat products. Most meats can be safely stored in the refrigerator for a few days and in the freezer for a few months. But the site points out that freezer storage guidelines are only for quality, and foods can stay safely frozen indefinitely.

You’ll find more in-depth information on food safety and the limits of labeling on the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website. Those eggs you bought last week can be safely refrigerated for three to five weeks. And who knew shelf-stable canned meat and poultry is still good after two to five years.

The Whole Foods website has helpful information on storing dairy products and cheese. Storage times vary greatly, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding what to buy. Opened butter, for example, will last one to two weeks, while opened margarine will last four to six months.

On the Spice Islands site, you’ll find information on the shelf life of spices and herbs. Buying whole spices rather than ground spices is a better choice because they last longer.

And you’ll find safety and storage recommendations for nearly every product under the sun at Wonder how long you can keep that raw shrimp in the fridge or freezer, or whether that unopened package of spaghetti that got buried in the back of the pantry is still good? The answer is just a click away.

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