What Does That “Best if Used By..” Date Really Mean?

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Many consumers throw away food at or near the expiration date unnecessarily.

Almost all foods are marked with some type of “Use By” or “Best if Used By” date on the packaging, but does that mean the food enclosed becomes automatically unsafe to eat when that date passes?

According to an article on, not necessarily so.  In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the “sell by” date on the packages is a suggestion for the stores about how long the product is good for being displayed, and it doesn’t really mean the food inside is unsafe to eat.

With the exception of infant formula, the government does not require expiration dates to be put on labels or food packages.  For infant formulas, the product may not be as nutritious as originally packaged after the expiration date, and it may also separate of clog, becoming undesirable.

The marking “Best Used By” suggests the last date in which the food still contains its optimal freshness and taste, but still may be safe for consumption.  An example is canned soup.  It may have a “Best Used By” date on the can, but the soup will still be good to eat long after the date, maybe with a little loss of flavor with each day that passes.

Dr. Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist with the consumer trade group, Consumers Union, said in an interview with ABC, that the dates listed on the packages really did not give the consumers any clue as to whether the food inside is good or bad.

He added that most people think the food is hazardous to eat after the date on the package passes by.

One estimate says that Americans throw out around $160 billion of food, a lot because they think the food is bad since it has passed the expiration date.  Most of the time the sniff and taste test will work to determine the freshness of food, but experts advise being extra careful with meats and prepackaged foods, since they tend to spoil more quickly.

So, to protect yourselves and family and avoid wasting precious food dollars, shop wisely and only buy foods that you plan to use before the expiration date.

Also familiarize yourself with the current UDSA guidelines for Food Product Dating which can be found here.

Wanda B. Hewlett

Wanda B. Hewlett (Contributor) is a freelance writer from the UK. When she’s not busy writing she loves to spend her time traveling, exploring and running.

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