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Best-by, use-by and sell-by

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of a month, I have heard a lot of buzz regarding food product dating. 

Oftentimes these dates are overlooked because one can quickly conclude whether or not the item has spoiled. Though smell and taste are not recommended, most of us–at least, in my experience–are guilty of this habit. With America’s birthday wrapping up soon, I thought it best to refresh ourselves on the topic.

A few years back, my family gathered for our usual Christmas dinner. My sister, Amber, was in charge of deviled eggs. Upon realizing she had forgotten to purchase paprika, Amber took to the unmentioned family members spice cabinet for an alternative.  After finding the tin can of paprika, she took her seat and began dusting the eggs. As though a tin can of paprika does not already scream “old,” the concept had not dawned on Amber until she had the eggs well coated. 

I imagine you may already be guessing what date was stamped on this spice can, but I am not sure that you will come anywhere close. To this day, my relatives still joke about the paprika from 1980. Yes, you read that right–1980. I am here to attest to the old, cardboard flavored spice that was contained within the tin can labeled “paprika.”

If you know anything about my family, these experiences are not all that uncommon. We drink expired milk, eat freezer burned ham from Christmas, and we will even go so far as to cut off a large portion of moldy cheese, leaving behind what we consider to be “safe.” While these methods are not recommended, my family chooses to do these things in an effort to be conscientious about how much food we are wasting. But this paprika ordeal got me thinking–are we following proper recommendations for these items? Sure, Grandma’s bean soup would not be nearly as tasty without that Christmas hambone, and no one has died from any bean soup (yet), but could they become sick due to our carelessness?

Surely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has answers for all things food, so I took to their website for a proper explanation.

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), there are two types of product dating labels: open dating and closed dating. A manufacturer stamps a food product with an open date label when they want consumers to know the extent of the products best quality. A closed date refers to when the product was produced. While both are important, let’s talk about the big one–open dating.

Contained within open dating are best-by/best-before, sell-by, use-by and freeze-by. Best-buy indicates when a product will be of best quality–nothing to do with safety. A sell-by date refers to how long the product is to be displayed for sale. Again, nothing to do with safety. Use-by indicates the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality. Use-by doesn’t refer to safety, except for when referring to infant formula. Last, freeze-by indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality, with no reference to safety.

The biggest factor to consider when dealing with perishables is bacteria. While freezers and refrigerators slow the growth process, we are not always out of the woods. It is always better to be safe than sorry. You did not hear it from me, but sight, taste and scent are not terrible methods. 

More information on food product dating can be found at www.fsis.usda.gov.