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Dr Russ Blog - Understanding "Sell-By" and "Use-By" Dates
Understanding "Sell-By" and "Use-By" Dates
Created on 3/14/2014

D sent in a question that we are commonly faced with - do we have to strictly follow "Use-by" and "Sell-by" dates?

Generally speaking, you're best off following those dates.

Some things to know about food dating systems:

1) Dates are printed voluntarily on many food items, but they are not required by the Federal Government.

2) Food product dating can appear as open dates that are readable to shoppers or closed dates that only appear as bar codes on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food. Both dating systems enable manufacturers and retailers to rotate their stock and can help with product tracing.

3) Calendar dates help grocery stores determine how long to display the product for sale and relate to the peak quality of food, not safety.

4) Calendar dates are found primarily on perishable foods such as eggs, dairy products, meat and poultry.

Foods are dated in one of four ways:

1) "Sell-by" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before this date to ensure maximum quality.

2) "Use-by" date is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality (the date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product).

3) "Best if used by (or before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

4) "Closed or coded" dates are packing numbers used by the manufacturer that are not readable by consumers.

Again, it should be noted that the dates found on products are the food manufacturer's recommendations regarding optimal quality of the product. The dates are not necessarily guides for food safety. For instance, a product may be safe to eat beyond the "best if used by" date, but would not be of highest quality.

Food safety issues have much more to do with food handling such as proper storage and cooking temperatures. Learn more about food labeling and safety by visiting the web ste of the USDA (

Bottom line - for best quality and safety, use before the suggested date.

Thank you for a great question, D.

Be well.
Dr. Russ
** Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment. **

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