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Decode the Dates on Your Food Labels

Every year, Americans toss $165 billion of uneaten food. A new report finds one key reason for this is confusion over expiration dates. Get the truth behind the label so you can prevent waste while keeping your family safe from foodborne illness.

According to federal law, only infant formula must come stamped with an expiration date. But some states require dates on other foods, too. And even when dates are not required, manufacturers often choose to print them on milk, eggs, and other products.

The problem, according to a new report from Harvard University and the Natural Resources Defense Council, is that manufacturers use unclear terms that confuse consumers.

Learn the Label Lingo

To understand the dates you see on products on your supermarket’s shelves, follow this guide:

  • “Sell by”: This date tells stores how long to display a product. Food may taste best when purchased before this date, but you can safely consume it afterward.
  • “Use by” or “Best if used by”: To enjoy an item’s best texture and flavor, eat it before this date. These dates refer to the best quality of the product and not safety dates.
  • “Expired by”: If you haven’t used food by this date, throw it out. Check this date closely at the store—no law bans the sale of expired products.

Think Beyond the Calendar

Regardless of expiration dates, fresh foods can harbor bacteria if you handle them improperly. Keep perishables safe by:

  • Buying them toward the end of your shopping trip so they spend less time unrefrigerated
  • Promptly refrigerating or freezing them when you get home
  • Bagging meat and poultry separately from other groceries
  • Keeping products like eggs in the coldest part of the fridge—not the door

Check more home food safety tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics


“The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, September 2013.

“Did you know that a store can sell food past the expiration date?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, April 2012.

“Food Product Dating.” Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, August 2013.

“Food Shopping Safety Guidelines.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, December 2012.

“Home Food Safety.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013.

“Sell by, use by. What do they mean?” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013.