Snack time! You open the fridge and grab a tub of yogurt. Oh dear, you see that the “Best by” date was three days ago. Shucks! What do you do?
A. Toss it, obviously. Gross.
B. Who cares – get in my belly!
C. Look and smell for oddities, then eat it if it doesn’t seem off.
D. Close the fridge and grab an apple.
Correct answer: C.
Now, same situation. You’ve grabbed a different tub of yogurt from the fridge, and you see that there is a “Use by” date and that it was a couple days ago. What do you do – a, b, c, or d? The “Best by” date is specific to the freshness of quality, flavor, and consistency of the product. The “Use by” date is basically one step beyond the “Best by” date, as it is the last date by which the manufacturer believes that the product will be at its peak freshness. For your different tub of yogurt with a “Use by” date, you could also do option C, the look and smell test, since the manufacturer determines this “Use by” date. As a protection (and arguably to boost sales and profits from you throwing away the product to go out and purchase more “fresh”), the manufacturer generally chooses this date a few days in advance of the product actually going “bad,” per se.
But, it’s a fine line; a lot of how true food freshness dates are depends on how food is processed, transported, and stored. (More on this below!) And, since one can never know exactly what happened along the journey, and since most bacteria is invisible to the naked eye, many opt not to risk an upset stomach from disregarding a “Use by” date. Me, I’m of the “waste not” faction, as long as it seems safe to me. Ultimately, it’s your call/your body. Common sense (in addition to your five senses) can certainly help you out.
Now wait a minute! Why did the two different tubs of yogurt you grabbed each use different types of date labels (“Best by” and “Use by”)? Basically, it depends on the manufacturer. In the U.S., the only food that is nationally mandated by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to present a “Use by” label is…infant formula. While freshness and packaging dates on foods are, well, on nearly all foods these days, the food dating system is pretty much self-imposed. Manufacturers essentially determine quality and freshness dates based on the characteristics of the food product, the way it is packaged and type of packaging, and the length of time and temperature at which the food product is held for distribution and offered for sale. Unfortunately, due in part to this adopted, misleading food quality labeling system, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that about 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted annually. So, next time you go to toss a food product just because of the "Best by/Use by" date...think twice. Either freeze it, or consider it a creative challenge to use up before you throw out!
Based on the information on the USDA’s website, here are the specifications for each of the most common food dating labels, more or less in order of how you should be prioritizing your attention to them. All of these different date labels are related to quality, NOT safety of consumption.
**NOTE: you should always, with any packaged food product and regardless of the freshness date, inspect it (again, look and smell test) upon opening for any spoiling.
- NOT a safety date except when used on infant formula
- “The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.”
- USDA Translation: The food may not be the freshest, but it probably isn’t bad by this date.
- Manufacturer’s Translation: We can’t guarantee this product beyond this date. OR, If you eat this product after this date and get sick, we can’t be sued.
- Food (including meat), cooked or uncooked, may be frozen up until this date.
- NOT a safety date
- “Tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.”
- USDA Translation: This product needs to move from the shelf to the house by this date.
- Manufacturer’s Translation: We aim to sell this product in an efficient manner. OR, We’re looking to boost profits, so we’ll try to encourage faster sale of this product.
- Most commonly used for eggs, milk, and meat products – See table below.
“Best if used by/before”
- NOT a safety date
- NOT a purchase date
- “Indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.”
- USDA Translation: This product is at its prime up until this date, but you’re the true judge.
- Manufacturer’s Translation: We believe that this product is best up until this date.
- OR, We’re on board with the USDA, which recommends we use this food dating system.
Other food freshness dates out there that are NOT a purchase date NOR a safety date:
- Generally used on canned or packaged products, and especially on beer, in recent years.
- Provides information about how long a given product will store.
- For beer, up to 3 months in a cool, dark location (light prompts microbial activity)
- For high-acid canned foods like tomatoes and fruits, 12-18 months
- For low-acid canned foods like meats and vegetables, 2-5 years
- Generally used on baked goods or other freshly made perishables
- Communicates that items are freshest and of the best quality by the date specified, but does not mean that items are inedible after the date.
Handling and Storing Food Safely
Above all, it is most important to observe best practices when transporting and storing food products. According to Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., the “temperature danger zone” for food is between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food should not be within this temperature range for more than 4 hours (some claim that over 2 hours is too long, even), and really, for as little time as possible. Improper handling and storage of food products can and will likely cause food spoilage in advance of the freshness dates on foods.
Unfortunately, the food labeling system is not consistent, nor reliable. The following table, based off of information from the USDA, provides a general rule of thumb regarding storage time of perishable meat products, which can be more prone to foodborne illness.
**NOTE: Always store meat products on the bottom shelf of your fridge to avoid vertical contamination of products below.
Product Storage Times After Purchase (via Web MD)
1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry
1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (liver, tongue, brain, kidneys, heart, chitterlings)
1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, uncooked
1 or 2 days
Read more about essential food storage tips regarding refrigeration, freezing, and thawing food products.
See this chart of food storage times for the refrigerator and freezer, if you’re curious.
If you’d like to read more about the history of food labeling and how it has evolved, read this enlightening article.