Check the ‘best by’ dates for the best buys

Published 4:26 pm Friday, October 14, 2022

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Earlier this month, I was browsing through articles from the Associated Press, and came across one about “best before” and similar labels on food causing confusion and contributing to food waste. Before the article laid it out, I’d never really thought much about how many different labels can be on the foods we buy.

As you walk through the grocery store aisles, you’ve probably seen labels like “use by” or “sell by” or “expires on” or even the more palatable phrases “enjoy by” or “freshest before.” Most industry regulators these days encourage using “best if used by” to standardize what consumers see, but there’s no required label from the Food Safety and Inspection Service division of USDA (US Department of Agriculture) or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

The only exception to that is infant formula. The dates on infant formula are required by law and, for safety reasons, should absolutely not be used past that date on the label.

But back to food for everyone that’s not a baby. According to the AP article, people sometimes get confused by the date on the packaging to mean its unsafe to eat that food after the date passes, even though those dates are meant to convey when the food is at its peak for quality and taste. The result is that perfectly good food can sometimes get tossed out, contributing to the issue of food waste.

The article mentions that some grocery stores in the UK are encouraging people to use their senses instead of the date labels to determine if the product is fresh enough to buy.

I suppose that makes sense in some cases. Most people can look at certain foods and can tell that it’s not good anymore. But you can’t open up a bag of potato chips in the store and eat one to see if it tastes stale yet. And you can’t stand in front of the refrigerated section and open up a container of milk to sniff it and figure out if it’s spoiled yet.

In the US, some states have their own state requirements to cover for the lack of overarching federal policy. But if you’re selling those products in different states, then we’re back to the issue of having a variety of food labels which can mean different things.

The USDA website has a section about food product dates and some explanations for common phrases in an attempt to dispel confusion.

A “best if used by/before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. A “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. A “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. A “freeze by” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality.

USDA emphasizes that none of these labels are purchase or safety dates.

I agree, overall, that having consistent labels would be a better idea. It would be a lot simpler to see one label – the same one on every kind of food – and understand its purpose is to determine peak freshness. And that’s it. It’s up to the consumer to determine if the food isn’t good to eat anymore after that.

So how do we do that? Obviously, common sense should prevail. If it smells or looks bad, that’s probably a big red glowing sign that you shouldn’t eat it.

But, of course, I’m not a certified expert in food safety, and I’m always constantly worried I’m going to accidentally give myself food poisoning. (It hasn’t happened yet!) So here are a few tips compiled from both the USDA and the FDA.

A product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. (That basically means, for example, that a carton of eggs will be fine in the fridge a lot longer than if you leave it sitting on your kitchen counter for a whole day. USDA actually recommends keeping your eggs in their original carton and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, and not in the door due to loss of coolness.) Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria.

Molds, yeasts, and bacteria can cause food to spoil. Viruses, however, do not.

For canned goods, discard any that are dented, rusted, or swollen. According to USDA, high-acid canned foods (such as tomatoes and fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods (such as meat and vegetables) will keep for two to five years.

Mishandled food can create conditions where bacteria causing foodborne illness can increase. For example, if you take something like cold chicken salad out of the fridge for more than two hours (with temperatures above 40 degrees), it’s not good to eat anymore after those two hours have passed.

The USDA even has a meat and poultry hotline (1-888-674-6854) that people can call if they have questions or concerns. The website also notes that many factors affect the color of meat and poultry, but that doesn’t always mean the food has spoiled. In fact, they recommend using a food thermometer to determine if meat is thoroughly cooked. (Raw ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees while the minimum safe temperature is 165 degrees for poultry.)

If you’re still worried about your food, you can also use the Foodkeeper App, which is available on phones or on the web at

Lastly, I will leave you with some simple tips from FDA on how to reduce food waste.

Preplan and write down your grocery list before you go to the store. And it helps if you try to plan out your meals for the week too. (I try to do this myself, but it’s not always easy when your schedule can change at any time!)

Be careful about buying things in bulk, especially ones with a limited shelf life.

Don’t be afraid to purchase “ugly” fruits or vegetables. Just because they look funny, it doesn’t mean they’re damaged or rotten. (I know this from growing my own vegetables in a garden. Sometimes they taste great but end up looking strange.)

Refrigerate peeled or cut veggies for freshness. Use your freezer for foods that may go bad before you have a chance to eat them. (I’ve done this before with cookie dough… because who wants to waste perfectly good cookie dough? Not if I can help it!)

Be creative! If you’ve got some foods that’ll go bad soon, there are plenty of recipes you can try out that use up those ingredients just in the nick of time.

I hope this information will be helpful to people the next time they visit the grocery store or step into their kitchen and pantry. For me, it certainly cleared up some confusion and reminded myself about some important safety information.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.