Financial Resource Center

Money Management

Is This Still Good? What Those Dates on Food Really Mean

by Danielle Dresden / April 16th, 2020

You pull a half-full container out of the refrigerator and hesitate. The "Sell by" date was a few days ago. You sniff it. It smells fine, but you decide it's better to be safe than sorry and toss it anyway. Sound familiar? Despite the frightening science experiments most of us have grown in our refrigerators at some point, we too often throw away perfectly good food. 

What's in a label?

There are three audiences for food date labels—consumers, manufacturers, and retailers—and they all have different needs, which contributes to the confusion surrounding food expiration dates. Consumers want to make sure the food they eat is safe. Manufacturers want consumers to use products at their peak. Retailers want fresh products for their customers. The problem is that consumers frequently misinterpret manufacturers' messages to retailers and conflate food safety with food quality. 

“Best if used by” means the date when the product will begin to lose its taste and freshness. Using it before this date means you will get the most value for your dollar. 

"Sell by" dates let retailers know when to rotate stock and pull items from shelves. As long as the food is unopened and stored properly, it generally is safe to eat for some time after the "Sell by" date. Since the food is still fit for human consumption, many retailers donate these items to food banks. 

About 1% of the food supply becomes a threat to safety when it goes past its prime. Along with dairy products and eggs, items to be careful about include deli meats and unreheated frankfurters. Outbreaks of foodborne illness, like salmonella, can heighten consumers' anxiety and confusion. But those illnesses are not linked to an expiration date. While it's important to purchase, store, and prepare food properly to avoid serious health risks, the number of days you keep something in the fridge has nothing to do with whether you get a foodborne illness. 

If you're ever uncertain whether to keep or toss a certain food item, consider looking online for information about specific products. and the Food Keeper app are a couple of good resources to consult. Developing a more systematic approach to food dating could do a lot of good for consumers, manufacturers, retailers, and decrease the amount of food we throw out needlessly. Meanwhile, stick with a combination of the smell test, sell date, and common sense.


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