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Use By and Sell By Dates: What They Mean to Consumers

Sell By Date

As you walk the aisles of a grocery store, nearly every food item you pick up will have either a use by or sell by date. These dates let you as a consumer know when to use an item or when it needs to be sold from the store with the hope that you will heed to the provided date.

Dr. Jean Weese, a food scientist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, who specializes in food safety, preparation and preservation, explained the meaning of the dates and what they should mean to consumers.

“The only two foods required to have a sell by date on them are baby food and milk,” said Weese.

Weese explained that companies put dates on most of their other foods as a courtesy to their customers. While the dates are a courtesy, companies do extensive shelf-life testing to determine what date should be placed on specific foods. The companies also tend to err on the side of caution with their dates to make sure that consumers stay safe.

There is a difference between the use by and sell by dates. Weese, who is also a professor in Poultry Science at Auburn University, said that the sell by date is aimed at getting food out of the store by a specific date, while the use by date is aimed at consuming a food before the quality degrades.

Use by dates are most important for foods that are considered dangerous and could spread disease, such as meat, milk and eggs. Other foods, such as frozen and canned foods will hold longer than the use by date, but the quality of the food will decrease.

The preservation process is what keeps canned and frozen foods safe. Additives such as vitamin C or cream of tartar help to preserve food and keep it safe for consumption. Although on labels you won’t find these additives listed as vitamin C or cream of tartar, you will find their chemical name.

“For some reason instead of using common names on food labels, the government requires companies to use the chemical name,” said Weese. “For example, instead of putting vitamin C the company has to put ascorbic acid.”

Weese said that the use of chemical names can deter consumers from buying and using some products, but that most of the preservatives are common additives that are harmless. The additives simply help foods hold a longer shelf life.

Many foods can outlive their shelf life, but the quality of the product will decrease. The foods to keep in mind in respect to their use by date are foods that are considered hazardous, such as meat or eggs, because they can allow dangerous bacteria to grow.

Article By: Layla Lambert, Extension Daily

For more on sell by dates and safe food storage, see ACES publication HE-0471, Better-Safe-Than-Sorry Food Storage Charts.