What does the sell by date mean?

  • This Friday, May 24, 2019 photo shows the "sell by" date for a jug of milk in New York. In May 2019, U.S. regulators are again urging food makers to reduce the variety of terms like "best by" and "use by" that cause confusion about when food should be thrown out. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) Bebeto Matthews

Associated Press
Published: 6/7/2019 1:20:42 PM
Modified: 6/7/2019 1:20:30 PM

If milk is a few days past its “Sell By” date, is it safe to drink?

U.S. regulators are urging food-makers to be more consistent with labeling terms like “Best By” and “Enjoy By” that cause confusion. By clarifying the meaning of such dates, they are trying to prevent people from prematurely tossing products and to reduce the mountains of food that goes to waste each year.

What’s new?

Phrases like Best By, Enjoy By and Fresh Through generally indicate when a food’s quality would decline – not when it becomes unsafe to eat. To help make that clearer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently recommended companies stick with “Best If Used By.”

Industry groups got behind the phrase after earlier guidance from regulators, along with the more definitive “Use By” for perishables food that should be thrown out after a certain date. But the FDA hasn’t endorsed the latter phrase, which could have safety implications.

Regardless, the FDA’s recommendation isn’t mandatory, and consumers will likely continue seeing variations.

How accurate are the dates?

It’s difficult for manufacturers to pinpoint how long foods will stay good, given variables like how long they sit on loading docks and how they’re stored in people’s homes.

Milk should be good for at least a few days after its “Sell By” date, though exactly how long will depend on factors including pasteurization methods.

Many people use dates on packages as guideposts and rely on their senses. Crackers might taste stale, for instance, while more perishable foods might be discolored or smell funky.

Foods like fresh meat and dairy are more vulnerable to spoilage in part because their moisture allows the small amounts of bacteria to multiply more quickly, said Martin Bucknavage, a food safety expert at Penn State Extension.

“As time goes on, the few becomes more and more,” he said.

Is spoilage always bad?

Your tolerance for spoilage likely varies depending on the food. Few would keep pouring chunky milk over cereal, but many might overlook a spot of mold on bread.

Food safety experts generally recommend throwing out food at the first signs of spoilage. With mold, even a small fleck might be an indicator that there’s a lot more of it that you can’t see.

Keep in mind spoilage often isn’t what’s responsible for food poisoning.

How are food banks affected?

Greater understanding about date labeling might encourage more donations to food banks. In 1996, a federal law sought to encourage donations by shielding individuals and companies that donate food from liability.

But Michael Flood of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank notes concerns about spoilage don’t end with a donation. People who receive donated food may also be confused about the meaning of various dates, and end up throwing products away.

“We have the same problem the overall food industry has,” he said.




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