What do Expiration Dates Mean?

Many are confused about what these ‘Use-by’, ‘Best-by’, and ‘Sell-by’ dates really mean.

Use-by and Best-by Dates

  The ‘Use-by’ and ‘Best-by’ dates are intended for consumer use.
It is the date the manufacturer deems the product reaches peak freshness.

It’s NOT a date to indicate spoilage, nor does it necessarily signal that the food is no longer safe to eat.


  The ‘Sell-by’ date is only intended to help manufacturers and retailers, not consumers.

The ‘Sell-by’ date is a stocking and marketing tool provided by food makers to ensure proper turnover of the products in the store so they still have a long shelf life after consumers buy them. Consumers, however, are misinterpreting it as a date to guide their buying decisions. Some say that “Sell-by” dates should be made invisible to the consumer.

Millions of Pounds of Food Wasted

 Use-by dates are contributing to millions of pounds of wasted food each year.

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic says Americans are prematurely throwing out food, largely because of confusion over what “expiration dates” actually mean.

More than 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely. 40% of the U.S. food supply is tossed out unused every year because of food dating.

Most people do not understand what ‘Use-by’, ‘Best-by’, and ‘Sell-by’ dates really mean on their foods. Actually they are not “expiration” dates. Read on…

The fact that so much food is thrown out is stunning, and unbelievably wasteful…

Dates are Not Necessarily About Safety

Most consumers mistakenly believe that “expiration dates” on food indicate how safe the food is to consume. These dates actually are NOT related to the risk of food poisoning or food-borne illness.

It’s About Freshness

The dates solely indicate FRESHNESS, and are used by manufacturers to convey when the product is at its peak. That means the food does not expire in the sense of becoming inedible.

 For non-refrigerated foods, there may be no difference in taste or quality, and expired foods won’t necessarily make people sick.

But according to the report’s analysis, words like “Use-by” and “Sell-by” are used so inconsistently that they contribute to widespread misinterpretation — and waste — by consumers.


They say eggs, for example, can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase, even though the “Use-by” date is much earlier. Actually eggs can be consumed much further than that beyond the “date”, based on my own experience!

A box of mac-and-cheese stamped with a “Use-by” date of August 2018 can still be enjoyed on August 2019, most likely with no noticeable changes in quality.

Food Dating Was Never About Public Health

Food dating was never about public health. There is no national regulation over the use of the dates. The only federally required and regulated food dating involves infant formula, since the nutrients in formula lose their potency as time goes on.

What regulation does exist occurs at the state level — and all but nine states in the United States have food dating rules but these vary widely.

“What’s resulted from [the FDA letting states come up with regulation] is really a patchwork of all sorts of different rules for different products and regulations around them,”

“Sometimes a product needs a date, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a product cannot be sold after a different date. Or there is no requirement at all.

Even with different categories there is so much variability.”The result is a confused public — and tons of wasted food.

-Dana Gunders, staff scientist with the NRDC

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