Best If Used By, Use By, Sell By, What Do They Mean?


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Coborn's Blog: The Kitchen Detective

Do you ever wonder when you’re grocery shopping “What do those dates on the packages actually mean”?  It’s important to understand the phrases, “Best if Used By”, “Sell By” and “Use By”… What are these dates telling us??  Well, let me help explain.

Product dating is truly up to each manufacturer. Federal regulations actually do not require food products to be labeled with a date, with the exception of baby formula.  If a food manufacturer does choose to date a product, this is where the requirements kick in.  If using a calendar date, it must include both the month and the day.  They must also include a year if it is a shelf stable or frozen item.  In addition, this date needs to include a statement such as “Sell By”, “Use By”, etc.

Interesting Tidbit – Although Federal regulations do not require dating on product labels, dating of select food items is required in 20 or so states, Minnesota and North Dakota are among those.

Product dating can be presented in basically two ways.  Either through what is called Open Dating or Closed Dating.  Open Dating is essentially calendar dating which is easily understood by the consumer.  As I talked about earlier, this will include a month and a date and often the year.  Closed Dating, on the other hand, also known as coded dating, is just that….a code.  These codes can be presented in various forms including random numbers and letters which are not intended for the consumer to understand.  These codes allow the manufacturers to track their products and may often represent the date of production, which manufacturing plant the product was produced in, etc.

A little more about open dating and the words typically used (from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service)

Sell By – tells the store how long to display the product for sale.  You should buy the product before the date expires.
Best if Used By – recommended for best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
Use By – is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.  The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

As stated above these dates refer to the quality of the product not the safety which is a common misconception.  Foods impacted by spoilage bacteria may exhibit changes in flavor and appearance and may have an off odor, these products should not be used due to poor quality.  It is important to note that spoilage bacteria do not impact the safety of the food.  Pathogens (organisms that will make you sick) do not give off any odors nor do they make food taste or look badly.  It is also important to remember that mishandling of the product can cause rapid bacterial growth and if pathogens are present at even the slightest level this mishandling can cause the levels to grow and then foodborne illness can result.  So it is very important to handle foods properly, specifically those food items that are perishable (requiring refrigeration).  Some examples of mishandling include:shutterstock_143015473

  • Allowing product to sit too long in the Danger Zone..…remember “The Danger Zone”?? this is from 41°F-140°F
  • Thawing product at room temperature – this should always be done under refrigeration or if in a hurry under cool running water or in the microwave and cooked immediately afterwards.

Another factor that will affect the safety of the product is how long it is kept once opened.  The charts below outlines how long a product should be kept once opened.  If the product has a Use By date, this date should be followed even after opening.  For example, if the product is opened on the actual Use By date, it should not be kept past that date, even if the chart states 3-4 days after opening.

Refrigerator Storage of Processed Products Sealed at Plant

Processed Product

Unopened, After Purchase

After Opening

Cooked Poultry 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Cooked Sausage 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days
Sausage, Hard/Dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks/pantry 3 weeks
Corned Beef, uncooked, in pouch with pickling juices 5 to 7 days 3 to 4 days
Vacuum-packed Dinners, Commercial Brand with USDA seal 2 weeks 3 to 4 days
Bacon 2 weeks 7 days
Hot dogs 2 weeks 1 week
Luncheon meat 2 weeks 3 to 5 days
Ham, fully cooked 7 days slices, 3 days; whole, 7 days
Ham, canned, labeled “keep refrigerated” 9 months 3 to 4 days
Ham, canned, shelf stable 2 years/pantry 3 to 5 days
Canned Meat and Poultry, shelf stable 2 to 5 years/pantry 3 to 4 days


Refrigerator Storage of Fresh or Uncooked Products


Storage Times After Purchase

Poultry 1 or 2 days
Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb 3 to 5 days
Ground Meat and Ground Poultry 1 or 2 days
Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart, Chitterlings) 1 or 2 days
Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating 5 to 7 days
Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked 1 or 2 days
Eggs 3 to 5 weeks

I hope this has provided you with some useful information in regards to those dates we see on packages as we are shopping.  They certainly are helpful tools, but truly do not imply the safety of the product.  We should always follow our Food Safety “Recipe for Success” to ensure we are following safe food handling practices.

Until next time – Eat Safe and Be Healthy!


Coborn’s, Inc, Food Safety & Nutrition Manager, Registered Dietitian

Click Here for more articles written by Kim - The Ktichen Detetive

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