The Difference Between 'Sell By' And 'Use By' Dates

It's common to find dates on the packaging of staple items like meat, eggs, milk, and bread, but it's not always clear what those dates are telling us. Having more than one date on the label makes it even harder to know which one to go by. When it comes to deciphering sell-by versus use-by dates, you'll be surprised to find that one has nothing to do with you and the other isn't always right. 

When it comes to the quality and safety of food consumption, you would think that the federal government would be laying down the law, but according to the United States Department of Agriculture, that is not the case. Forty-one of the 50 states do require some sort of regulation on at least one type of food product, but there isn't actually a governing body paying attention, deciding on how dates are decided, and making sure certain standards are equal across the board (via Forbes).  

Why the sell-by date is important, but not for you

For example, the sell-by date you see on a product label isn't really anything you have to pay attention to. It was made up by the manufacturer as a way for grocery stores to know when to remove products from the shelves. That date honestly isn't anything more than an educated guess based off a taste or lab test.

The one date you should be paying attention to is the use-by date, but not for the reason you may think. "The reason companies are including dates at all comes from a valid business purpose in wanting consumers to eat food while the flavor is best," says Emily M. Broad Leib, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard. Think of the use-by date as the best-to-eat-by date. In other words, your food will taste the best when consumed no later than the use-by date.

Use-by dates don't always mean a product is safe to eat

Don't rely on the use-by date, though, as a hard-and-fast rule, especially when it comes to food safety. Take red meat for example. "Whether it's ground hamburger or a pound of steak, either eat it or freeze it within two days of purchase," says Jackie Keller, a certified provider of food safety training for the County of Los Angeles Department of Health (via Women's Day). Keller says our refrigerators are not designed to keep meat fresh beyond two days. 

Even though use-by dates should be used as guidelines, they aren't always 100 percent accurate. When it comes to knowing whether it's time to eat it or throw it away, that's up to your discretion. Always go with your gut instinct and follow your senses. If it doesn't smell right, is moldy, or is off-colored, and the use-by date is still a couple of days away, don't chance it. It's always better to be safe than sorry.