Here's What the "Sell By" Date Really Means

sell by feature

Some of us strictly follow expiration dates. Others assume if it doesn’t smell bad and there’s no mold, it’s probably edible. While it’s safe to say moldy, smelly food belongs in the garbage, the truth is, a “sell by” date is really just a guide.

“Sell by” dates are really more for the store than the shopper. And while you should probably scrutinize an item more if it’s past its “sell by” date, you should by no means automatically throw it away. Often it is perfectly safe to eat, it just might not taste as good as it would have if you ate it before the “sell by” date.

The best bet is to always ask your grocer for his opinion and then consider following these guidelines.

  • The FDA only monitors expiration dates for infant formula. They don’t require “expired by,” “use by” or “best before” dates on other food products. Nor are stores required by federal law to take food past its expiration date off the shelves. Most stores do anyway because it’s not great for their reputation to keep expired food on shelves.

You might be thinking, that’s funny, why do I see so many foods with expiration dates in my store if they aren’t required? That’s because while there is no federal regulation, many states do require them on perishable foods.

  • If an item is past its “sell by” date, it’s not necessarily unsuitable to eat. This is more a guide for stores so they know when to pull an item from shelves. Think of the “sell by” date as the last day an item is at its peak. After that, it may start to slowly decline in terms of taste and consistency, but it is often still edible for quite a few days.
  • Why do so many people reach to the way back of the shelf for their gallon of milk? That’s because of stock rotation. A standard grocery store practice pushes older products to the front of the shelf and stocks those with a later expiration date in the back. So though the food on the front isn’t expired, you might as well reach to the back and get the freshest products.
  • Sometimes an item will say “Best if Used By” or “Use By.” This date is not about food safety or purchasing date, this is simply the last date a manufacturer recommends eating a product if you want to enjoy it while it’s at peak quality.
  • The dates we’ve been referring to are called “Open” dates and typically are used on perishable food. There are also “Closed” or “Coded” dates, which are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. These are typically found on canned and boxed foods with a longer shelf life.


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