Food Label Confusion: ‘Best By,’ ‘Sell By,’ ‘Use By’ Don’t Mean Much, Expert Says

What do “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” on food product labels really mean?

October 1, 2014, 1:33 PM
PHOTO: What do "best by," "use by," "enjoy by" and "sell by" on food product labels really mean?
What do "best by," "use by," "enjoy by" and "sell by" on food product labels really mean?
Getty Images

— -- We’ve all seen the “best by,” “use by,” “enjoy by” and “sell by” on food labels, but what do they really mean?

Dr. Michael Hansen says he knows.

“They don’t mean anything,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumer Reports, a magazine that tests and reviews consumer products, says consumers mistakenly believe the dates indicate the product’s expiration. They don’t, he said.

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“What most people think is that the food is bad after that date and they shouldn't eat it - it could be a hazard. So they tend to throw it out,” he said.

But “GMA” Investigates is learning that, for the most part, the date shown on the container is not the final date at which the food may safely be consumed. Instead, the date shown is the last day the product is at its peak quality, as determined by the manufacturer, according to Hansen and a 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council -- an action group that works to protect health and the environment -- and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

The guidelines for label dating vary from state to state. Some states have no guidelines at all. The only product that carries a federally regulated use-by date is infant formula.

In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association acknowledged that “current practices do not adequately serve all consumers.”

In the statement, the association added that there is an effort among many partners to “improve current code dating practices, with the goal of creating a uniform global standard.”

As they are used right now, the dates don’t give a lot of useful information, Hansen said.

“There is complete confusion out there,” he said.

He and others believe the confusion leads to major waste and consumers losing money.

In his book, “American Wasteland,” author Jonathan Bloom said a family of four discards up to $2,300 worth of food each year.

How much of that waste is due to label confusion isn’t known, but experts say they are sure it’s part of the problem. In many cases, the food is still safe to eat after those dates.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, milk may be good for up to one week after the printed date. According to the USDA, eggs may be good within three to five weeks from your purchase date and certain canned good, such as soup and green beans – can be good unopened on the shelf for up to five years.

Scroll down for a list of other products and their shelf lives.

Asked how a consumer can know when food has gone bad, Hansen said people should “use common sense.

“The food will either smell or taste bad before it gets to the point that it's going to make you sick. Just use common sense,” he said.

Shelf Life of Common Foods

-- Canned ham (shelf stable), may be stored two to five years. After opening, it may be stored for three to four days in the refrigerator.

-- Rice and dried pasta may be stored for up to two years. After cooking, they may be kept for three to four days in the refrigerator.

-- High-acid canned goods including some juices, fruits and foods with vinegar-based sauces or dressings may be stored for 12 to 18 months. After opening, they may be kept in the refrigerator for five to seven days.

-- Unopened, cooked (processed) poultry may be kept three to four days in the refrigerator after purchase. After opening, it may be stored for three to four days in the refrigerator.

-- Unopened bacon may be kept for up to two weeks after purchase, and for up to 7 days in the refrigerator after opening.

-- Unopened, processed, fully cooked ham may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. After opening, slices may be kept for up to three days and whole ham, seven days.

Click HERE for more information.

-- Source: The USDA, Food Safety Inspection Service