If You’re Confused by “Use by” Dates, Read This

Best by date on a package.

Take a look at just about anything in your fridge or your pantry. You’ll see on the container, whether it’s on the label or the container itself, a few different dates. Often we’ll see the terms “Sell By”, “Best By”, or “Use By” to signify when this food is no longer safe to eat. But when we see a few of these terms all with different dates, what are we supposed to think?

We don’t have to tell you how confusing this can be. If “Best By” gives you a week, but “Sell By” is only until tomorrow, which are you supposed to consider the cut off date? Heeding the wrong one could be disastrous, but you can’t avoid buying food because you’re not sure when it actually expires.

Thankfully, the grocery industry has heard our confused plea and is working to clear up this miscommunication after 40 years of guessing.

On Wednesday, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the two largest trade groups for the grocery industry, announced that they’ve adopted standardized, voluntary regulations to clear up what product date labels mean. Where manufacturers used to use any of 10 separate label phrases, ranging from “expires on” to “better if used by,” they’ll now be encouraged to use only two: “Use By” and “Best if Used By.”

Hallelujah.

Even better, both terms have specific meanings. “Use By” is meant to indicate when perishable foods are no longer good. “Best if Used By” is a quality descriptor — basically a guess of when the manufacturer thinks the product should be consumed for peak flavor.

This “new” meaning of “Best if Used By” isn’t actually all that new; this is what most “Use By” dates mean now! However, studies have shown that many consumers believe this signals whether a product is okay to eat. In reality, it’s totally fine to eat a product even well after its “Used By” date, or at least it used to be. In the near future, we’ll finally see this term mean what we’ve always thought!

Both the Department of Agriculture and a coalition of environmental groups have been urging the industry to clear this up for years, as it’s a huge source of food waste and greenhouse has emissions. It makes sense; if you think food is about to expire (when in reality, it’s just reaching its peak flavor) then you’re going to prematurely toss food. This not only wastes food, but this causes a waste of money for consumers, takes up landfill space, and contributes to gas emissions that are deteriorating the ozone.

“I think it’s huge. It’s just an enormous step,” said Emily Broad-Leib, the director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. “It’s still a first step — but it’s very significant.”

What do you think of these updated terms on your foods? Will this help clear up confusion or make things worse, in your opinion? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.