Best Used By Dates- What do they actually mean?

By Andrew Hoeft on Dec 22, 2011

There are certainly a lot of questions about expiration dates. As such, here the answers to 3 frequently asked questions about them.

Q: Is it illegal for grocery stores to sell expired products?

A: It is not illegal for grocery stores to sell expired products. In fact, with the exception of baby formula and baby food, the FDA doesn’t even require expiration dates to be included on food packaging. Some states do however have specific regulations on products such as dairy and fresh meat. The main reason expiration dates are carried on products is for quality purposes. For example, if you have ever had freshly made potato chips you know that they taste far better than the ones you get in a bag. The same is true for chips that are freshly bagged and those that have sat on the shelf for several years.

Q: What is the difference between different titles before expiration dates such as best used by dates?

A: There are several different terminologies used to describe the dating of food products:

  • Expiration date: This is the LAST day that you should eat an item. It may be good after this date, but we DO NOT recommend that you eat it or sell it if you are a grocer.
  • Sell by: This is a quality date that tells grocer’s the last day that they should offer an item for sale to customers. Buying a product that is past the sell by date may not be a good idea as the quality will not be as high.
  • Best used by dates: These dates refer to quality not to a date on which the product is unsafe. Essentially, past this date manufacture’s no longer guarantee freshness.
  • Guaranteed fresh by: These titles are most commonly used on bakery items.
  • Pack or Born On dates: As you can guess, these refer to the dates in which the products were packaged or created. The time frame in which these items should be consumed varies. You won’t need to worry about expired canned food with packed on dates for at least a year, but other products may not last as long. We recommend that you call the manufacturer if you are concerned that a product is unsafe or if you are a grocer and are unsure if you should be selling the product anymore.

Q: Are products safe to eat past their expiration dates?

A: As we mentioned above, many “expiration dates” such as best used by dates simply refer to a peak quality point. As such, many products are safe to eat after that point. However, how long they are safe truly depends on the product. If you are worried, use the sniff test. If a product smells spoiled then you should throw it away.

Click here to visit a site that provides more information on expiration dates as well as charts on specific items and how far past their printed dates they are safe to consume.

If you have any additional questions on expiration dates, feel free to comment below and we will do our best to answer them.


  • mehulkar

    How do they estimate the dates used?

  • Anonymous

    Mehul, you ask a great question. The expiration date is estimated largely on how the product is packaged, not on what the product actually is. For instance, canned goods are generally good for a year and dry goods such as cereal are good for at least 6 months if stored in dry conditions. Other products such as frozen, dairy, and meat follow the same method; they just have shorter shelf lives.

    One additional point we would like to mention specifically to packaged meat comes from an article on Business Week online (link below). Even if a fresh meat product is labeled to be good for five days in the store, it should still be consumed or frozen within 2 days of purchase. This is because home refrigerators are set at higher temperatures than in the stores and as such cannot keep the meat fresh as long.