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Understanding Food Labels: The Use-By and Sell-By Date

| 11/22/2011 1:20:42 PM

How much stock do you put in the "use-by" or "sell-by" date on your grocery store items? If you’re like most Americans, you probably assume that those dates are set in place for your safety and you adhere to them strictly (with a little give and take, naturally). But while most of us assume that "use-by date" is synonymous with "expiration date," those numbers have nothing to do with food safety—and actually aren’t under any federal regulation at all.

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"Use-by" and "best-by" dates are set by the manufacturers and only indicate by what date the product should be used for "peak quality." Once a product has passed its "use-by" date, most consumers will throw it out, incorrectly concluding that the product is expired and therefore no longer good to use. And what do we do when we’ve run out of a product? Buy more, of course. (Which is exactly what food manufacturers want us to do.)

"Sell-by" dates are equally confusing to consumers, even more so because they’re not intended for consumers. Stockers at grocery stores use "sell-by" dates to know how long to keep a product on store shelves. Most products are good to use for days or weeks past their "sell-by" date, yet most grocery stores will toss the products once their date has passed. To consumers, the product will look expired—and who’s going to buy an expired product?

Unfortunately, misunderstanding over these dates leads to a lot of food waste. Research by U.K.-based WRAP shows that almost 50 percent of consumers don’t understand "use-by" and "sell-by" dates on food labels and that up to 20 percent of food waste is linked to this misunderstanding.

Currently the only product whose "use-by" date the USDA regulates is infant formula (although some states do regulate the dates for a small number of certain products). As it doesn’t look like regulation of these dates will receive attention anytime soon, it’s up to you be a smart shopper. Use your common sense (and your new-found knowledge) to determine whether or not a food product is safe to use. Sometimes a good sniff is all you need.

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