What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

Snapshot from food expiration graphic.

Those "use by," "sell by," "best by," "use before" and other variations of dates stamped on foods can be confusing, especially when people think of them all as expiration dates. They are not the date that the food automatically turns bad and will give you food poisoning. This infographic, courtesy of the Lake Shore Convention Centre in Ontario explains what they all mean.

food expiration dates infographic

Earlier this year, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association suggested to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that they'd be willing to create two standard date labels for foods: "best if used by" and "use by." These labels would replace the close to 50 versions currently used by food manufacturers and help to clear up some confusion about when a food is no longer good to eat. Those labels could also eliminate unnecessary food waste.

The "best if used by" dates would indicate peak quality, but the product would still be safe to consume after the date. The "use by" date would indicate that a product was highly perishable and/or there could be food safety concerns after that time.

A look at some of the current products in my refrigerator shows that those standard date labels have not been put into place yet. A gallon of milk and some chicken breasts that I purchased recently both have "sell by" dates on them and some ice cream and ghee have "best by" dates stamped on them.

Until the USDA and food producers get their acts together and agree on standard date labels, implement them and then educate consumers about the new standards, it's good to understand the information contained in the infographic so you don't waste food and money.