The key takeaway is that a “best-by” or “sell-by” date is not an expiration date and doesn’t necessarily mean that the safety of the food product declines after that date.
All the date labels come from the manufacturer and are aimed at different audiences.
A “best-by” or “use-by” date is guidance for consumers to get the best experience of the product, says David Fikes, vice president of Consumer/Community Affairs and Communications for the Food Marketing Institute.
A “sell-by” date is geared toward the retailer. “While it’s OK for the consumer to see that date, it’s really more for stocking purposes,” he says.
You’ll only see an “expiration date” on infant formula because it’s required by law, but not on other foods.
“Babies rely on all the nutrients present in the formula,” Fikes says. “They put an expiration date on that to let you know when the nutrients may have diminished to the point where it may not be sustainable for the infant.”
Once a food product does pass its “best-by” date, Fikes says “it doesn’t mean it’s diminished or unsafe if you eat it beyond the date,” although the information does carry a little more weight for dairy and deli products.
While FMI wouldn’t make a blanket statement that date labels have nothing to do with food safety, they’re more about quality.
Fikes, FMI and Cornell University recently worked with the Department of Agriculture to broaden their brochure about keeping food safe into a mobile app called FoodKeeper. It includes storage timelines, cooking tips, and access to USDA’s “Ask Karen” feature.
One of the reasons behind FoodKeeper is to help consumers cut down on food waste. Producers are going to hedge their bets a little bit about the date on the product, Fikes says. Once the food leaves the grocery store, they have no say in how it’s stored, so they use a date that takes into account the fact that the food may not be kept at the most optimal conditions. This is why most products are fine beyond their date label.
The app is also designed to help consumers get their money’s worth from the foods they buy. “No one wants products going to the landfill,” Fikes says.
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