13 January 2014
Sell By – Use By – Best Before: Wasting Cash Due to Confusing Food Labels?

Smart food shoppers routinely check food expiration dates to get the freshest foods for themselves and their families. However, each year we throw out millions of dollars worth of perfectly safe, healthy food because of confusing food labeling.  Even the smartest consumers misread common labels found on a variety of foods that line the aisles of the local supermarket.

“The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” a report produced by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council®1, estimated that a family of four in the U.S. wastes between $1,560 and $2,275 in food each year. A 2011 report from WRAP, a not-for-profit organization in the United Kingdom, reported that confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of avoidable household food waste. Using the Dating Game estimates, this means that the average family of four in the U.S. throws out between $312 and $455 per year in food because of confusion over date labeling.

Here’s a quick guide to food product labeling that may help you avoid waste and save money on your food budget each year.

Sell By

The Sell By label is designed to provide grocers with dates after which a product’s shelf life starts to degrade.  Unfortunately, many consumers toss food that’s past the sell by date, even though the food is not only safe, it’s still nutritional. Many foods keep their nutrients after the sell by date, and if properly sealed, or unopened, many foods are still safe and nutritious well after the sell by date.

Of course, use good sense. If the sell by date is four years ago, it’s probably a good idea to toss that food item and buy fresh.

Best Before  

The Best Before label indicates the food manufacturer’s estimate of when the product reaches and passes its peak taste and nutritional value.

Although the best before label is a measure of quality of the food, most foods remain safe to eat after the best before date, according to the Dating Game report.

Once again, if the food is long past the best before date, if it looks funny, smells bad or you just aren’t sure, better to be safe than sorry. Toss it if it’s questionable.

On the other hand, if the food is a few days beyond the “best used by” date, chances are it’s safe to eat, still has nutrients, and you won’t know that Thursday’s dinner was best used by Tuesday.

Use By

There aren’t any national standards from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to direct food manufacturers to indicate the date by which food products, or medicines, should be used. However, the use by date is a good indicator of when you should toss something out.

Basic Food Safety – Do Your Research

So, how do you know for sure whether a food is past its prime, but still edible and nutritious? While the federal government has yet to sort through the food product labeling confusion, the government does provide a great deal of excellent information on just how long different foods remain fresh, healthful and safe to eat.

One good place to start is www.foodsafety.gov2. Here you’ll find recommended storage times for a variety of perishable foods. For instance, most meats can be stored safely in the refrigerator for a few days, and in the freezer for up to a few months.

Want to become a smarter shopper and a more savvy consumer? Learn more about food product dating at the Food Safety and Inspection Service3 website.

Each year, we throw out foods because we think they’ve passed their freshness dates, but in fact, we’re throwing away money. Take a little time to check the labels on the products you purchase at the supermarket.

Keep track of use by dates once the foods are in your home, and don’t necessarily toss foods that have passed the sell by date. Those foods may be just fine.

Food product labeling can be confusing, but smart consumers can still save on food costs simply by understanding the difference between sell by, best used by, and use by printed on the products in their homes.

  1. www.nrdc.org/food/files/dating-game-report.pdf
  2. www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html
  3. www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating


The information provided is presented for general informational purposes only and does not constitute tax, legal or business advice.

Natural Resources Defense Council is the registered trademark of Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and Nevada State Bank does not claim any ownership or exclusive right to the use of this trademark.


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