Food labels serve a dual purpose: not only are they used to promote food safety, but can also be an important tool for reducing food waste. This is the reason understanding the key difference between sell by and best by dates on food items is so critical.

Sell By Guidelines

When you see a sell by date on a food item, this label is aimed at all food retailers. The retailer uses this date as a guideline on how long to keep the item stocked on shelves. Once the date is reached or closing in, the retailer must use his or her best judgment to decide how long to keep the item on shelves. Retailers assume buyers are less likely to purchase items that are near their sell by dates. Vendors also use the sell by date to make decisions on how to display food in an appealing manner.

For consumers, the sell by date isn’t a deadline on when you must consume the food. In fact, many food items are safe to be eaten after the sell by date. However, the taste and quality of the item may deteriorate over time. On average, a third of a product’s shelf life continues after the sell by date has been reached.

Best By Guidelines

On the other hand, best by dates are intended for the consumer. The manufacturer is letting the consumer know when to eat the food before quality is potentially compromised. The food isn’t necessarily unsafe after this point, but the flavor and texture may have been altered during this time. Best by dates are also only accurate if the food has been properly stored. For instance, foods that require refrigeration must be kept at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and not left at room temperature for more than two hours. Food storage instructions are typically also printed on food labels.

When a food is labeled with a best by date, consumers can assume that the item will still be generally safe to eat within a few days of the date without any risk to their health.

Important Tips

Use by dates are very different than best by dates on food items. Best by dates are considered more of friendly suggestions while use by dates are intended to protect consumers from any spoiled food. Foods can be consumed or frozen right up until the use by date. A use by date is very important for food items such as meats and produce items. Dispose of any food that has passed the use by date. If frozen, the food should typically be eaten within three to six months of the use by date.

Besides labels, there are additional methods to determine if a food item is safe or not. Although you shouldn’t rely on a smell test alone, this can help you detect any possible contamination within the food. Any type of unpleasant smells can indicate that the food item has spoiled. Also, observe the food item’s appearance. Look for any type of growth on breads and any type of white fluid in packaged meats.

Food Safety of America Institute is here to help your employees follow all food safety guidelines. We have developed training programs that help food service workers properly handle food. Contact us for more information on how we can help.