Best By, Sell By: What's the Difference?

December 01, 2011

Inconsistent freshness labeling has most consumers confused. Here is your guide, but when in doubt, throw it out!

The jumble of so-called freshness codes, sell-by dates, use-by, expiration, and packed-on dates can be confusing. It may surprise you to learn that dating is not required with the exception of infant formula and baby foods, which must be withdrawn by their expiration date. For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers. The good news is that because shoppers are increasingly concerned with this issue, manufacturers seem to be making it easier to decipher their freshness codes.

Although there are no standards for “freshness coding,” the codes must be readable and easy to understand. When a milk carton has a date under the words “sell by,” for example, it means exactly this: the milk should be sold by the printed date (and shouldn’t be bought after it). That doesn’t mean the product is spoiled; it’s just past its prime. How much time you should allow before consuming, or discarding the product depends on what it is, and how it’s packaged. If you’re in doubt, throw it out!

Milk distributors have led the way in establishing both the perceived image and importance of freshness. All states require “sell-by” dates on milk, but there is no consistent requirement of how many days before the product spoils. Temperature affects the shelf life of all products. Milk should be stored, both in the grocery store and at home, between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Dairies often “short date” milk by seven to 10 days to ensure that they meet state regulations and that we drink the milk at its peak. That means the actual “drink-by” date can be about a week later than the date stamped on the container. You should, however, trust your instincts and - most importantly - your nose.

What about other products? Soft drink and beer manufacturers began advertising and branding freshness several years ago. It’s a good strategy. Every beer drinker has encountered at least one “skunky” brew, and every soda fan has faced a flat or foul-tasting bottle of pop. Let the freshness dates be your guide, and try not to consume products too long after the stamped date. 

Temperature is Key. Just as for milk, temperature remains one of the most critical ways to maintain freshness. We can control storage at home, but what about before food the gets to us? That, of course, is outside of our control. We have to trust that manufacturers and retailers (and government agencies) will ensure that product temperatures during shipping and storage are at the proper levels.

Be a proactive shopper. If you see ice cream that’s soft in the freezer case or milk that’s not cold, don’t buy it. It may already be spoiled, and it probably won’t last as long. The same rule applies to all fresh products. Canned products should be consumed before the date stamped on the can, and if there are any dents on the can or it’s bulging, that’s another sign to toss it. 

It is our right as consumers to make sure our foods are fresh when we buy them; and it’s the store’s responsibility to ensure that their stock is properly rotated. If for whatever reason you missed the expiration date on a product and realized it was past its peak when you got home, keep the receipt and bring the product back to the store for a replacement. Food safety should be at the top of the priority list for you and your family.