What the Dates on Your Food Really Mean


In today’s society, our grocery stores have become a means for obtaining more than just common food. The grocery store is, in fact, a place of competition: of store against store, brand against brand and, strangely enough, labels against the consumer.

Of all the messages we receive during our time at the grocery store, which are, admittedly, more like bombardments on our neurological processes, there is one message that tends to call to us more insistently than the rest. It’s the message that dictates how and when we consume our food, dispose of our food, and come back to the store to replace our food.

Think about it: the expiration date, sell by date, manufactured on date, etc., can stand as the deciding factor between taking that scoop of mayonnaise and using it on your deli sandwich or throwing the whole container in the trash.

What Your Labels Aren’t Telling You

The truth, however, isn’t exactly in the label. Recent studies from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggest that the dated imprints on our food labels are one of the leading factors in food waste in America. According to the study, a misinterpretation of the expiration dates on food is causing Americans a loss of both money and provisions – provisions which, if used correctly, could have helped in the fight against hunger.

What this means for you as the consumer is that the date on the package is merely a guideline to be used to help you determine the freshness and longevity of the product. It does not mean that the egg carton that has yesterday’s date on it needs to hit the trashcan instead of being used.

Decoding the Terms

As the dates on your food are not strictly regulated, except in the case of baby formula, many of the terms that companies tend to use can seem to contradict one another or get muddled into a transmogrification of food terminology resembling an alien script that no one can hope to decode.

So, to help you decode, here are a few of the most common terms and what they really mean:

  • Sell by – If you see “Sell By” on a food carton, recognize that this date is meant more for the store carrying the product than for you as the consumer. The date refers to the last day that the product should be placed upon the shelf as required or requested by the manufacturing company. It doesn’t mean that the product has gone bad or is no longer safe to consume. However, your best bet is to simply reach for the product in the back, as most stores tend to place the newest batches behind the ones with upcoming sell by dates.
  • Best if used on or before – Dates with this terminology are, in many cases, flexible. All this means is that the quality of freshness in taste and consistency that the manufacturer wants to provide to the consumer is at its peak if used on or before that date. The product is still safe for consuming after the date, but the consumer may notice a slight alteration in the taste of the product. Something akin to an A+ going to an A or A-.
  • Use by – The “Use By” date is another quality control measurement that is determined by the manufacturer. It is, as you may have guessed, the final date that the company wishes the food to be consumed by to retain their level of desired quality. It, too, has nothing really to do with the safety of consuming the food after that date.

To further help you decipher when and how to safely consume your food, check out this great article from Star Lawrence at WebMD. Lawrence does an excellent job going through expiration date terminology in more detail, as well as explaining food safety tips and how long items generally last once you’ve purchased them.

In short, the dates on your food have very little to do with any sort of federally regulated safety requirements or health care laws, but instead refer to what companies have determined to be the best “shelf life” of their product in terms of consistency in taste and freshness.

By being aware of the varying terminology, American consumers can greatly decrease confusion resulting from expiration dates and can become more efficient in their consumption, thus providing America with lower costs in food waste and production.

Daniel Faris
Daniel Faris is a freelance writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You can join his alter ego over at The Sound of Progress for discussions of progressivism in music, politics, and culture.