Sell by, use by, best if used by – Here’s why food labels may not actually matter

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This Friday, May 24, 2019 photo shows the “sell by” date for a jug of milk in New York. In May 2019, U.S. regulators are again urging food makers to reduce the variety of terms like “best by” and “use by” that cause confusion about when food should be thrown out. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Is there a difference between the “sell by,” “best by,” and “best if used by” date?

It’s a source of confusion for shoppers everywhere, and may have even caused some heated arguments at your house.

What do these dates really mean, and should you rely on them to determine whether your food is still safe to eat?

Lynne McLandsborough is a Food Microbiology professor at UMass Amherst. “It’s a little confusing. I think part of the confusion has been people look at the dates and anything passed it, they throw it out.”

The I-Team learned that if you’ve been tossing out food because it’s passed the date on the label, there’s a good chance you’ve been wasting a lot of money.

Let’s start with the fact that many consumers believe these labels are set by or at least monitored by the government. “No, not set by the government. They’re set by the food manufacturer.”

McLandsborough said each manufacturer has their own formula to determine how to come up with these dates. “There are different ways it can be done. It’s not an exact science, and that’s something the food industry is always asking and trying to figure out. How do we determine the shelf life of the food product?”

In other words, while most of us think the “sell by,” “use by,” and “best if used by” dates relate to food safety, that’s not the case, the only exception being baby formula.

In fact, this is what it says when you visit the United States Department of Agriculture’s website:

“With the exception of infant formula, if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly—until spoilage is evident.”

USDA

If these labels aren’t an indication that your food has gone bad, what do they actually mean?

Big Y Registered Dietitian Carrie Taylor told the I-Team,”best if used by” and “use by” mean the exact same thing. “Best if used by means best peak quality. When a manufacturer says “best if used by,” that’s their guarantee that you’re going to get the best quality out of their product if you use it by that date.”

How about the “sell by” date? Taylor told the I-Team, that’s meant to tell the grocery store when to remove the item from their shelves.

Big Y Registered Dietitian Andrew Luttrell said food products may last far longer than the label actually says.

According to the USDA, ground beef and chicken can be good 1-to-2 days past the expiration date, or 3-to-4 months frozen.

A gallon of milk can last up to 3-months in your freezer.

If you’re trying to figure out whether it has gone bad, McLandsborough said your best bet is to rely on the smell test. “If it smells metallic or tastes metallic, that’s an indication that the fat has become rancid.”

As for bread, check its appearance. “Use your eyes, see if there’s any mold. You can also smell it and see if there’s an off scent to it,” Taylor said.

Eggs are a bit more complicated.

According to the USDA, they can last a whopping 3 to 5 weeks, but Luttrell said you might need a calculator to figure out when they were packaged. “If you see this 3-digit number, that can go anywhere from 001 to 365 and it’s when the eggs were actually packed by the calendar year, so 144 is the 144th day of the year.”

The USDA is now trying to make these dates less confusing for grocery shoppers. They’ve joined the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the Food Marketing Institute in encouraging food manufacturers to consolidate the labels to just two, “best if used by” for food quality, and “use by” for food safety.

They’re also hoping that this move will prevent food waste.

According to the government, Americans toss out an average of $166-billion worth of food every year, and about 20-percent of that is a result of label confusion.

CLICK HERE to find out how long the food in your fridge will stay good for.

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