Saving Money with Salvaged Food: Sell-By Dates May Not Mean a “Don’t Consume” Date

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“Sell-by-dates, schmell-by-dates,” says Jonathon Bloom in his book, American Wasteland.  His book examines the massive quantities of food wasted from farm to fork. And it is also the industry that ships and stocks that food between farm and fork that authors like Bloom and the opponents of sell-by pressure that is put upon retail grocers who ask the consumer to not support an industry that, according to advocacy estimates, say that grocery stores discard thousands of dollars worth of “out-of-date” food goods daily.  Even worse, the waste continues at home since many consumers also misinterpret this date and discard those products with weeks of good shelf life still remaining.


Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., states that the “sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, “but it will still be edible for some time after.”


Marianne Gravely, the Technical Information Specialist at the Food and Safety Inspection Service blogs, “most shelf-stable foods (canned, boxed, vacuumed) goods will last for years,” as long as it is in good condition. Many foods, she says, will be “safe past the ‘best-by’ date.”  According to the USDA Food Product Dating data, “many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety.”


These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, refer to the date and time of manufacture. They aren’t meant for the consumer to interpret as ‘use-by’ dates.  According to the USDA, there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. The dating procedures are at the manufacturer’s “discretion”, say USDA data, and are a voluntary system used principally as “inventory rotation” by wholesale grocers. The USDA guidelines in this context (see chart below) are chiefly for “packaged foods”—canned goods, dry foods, as mentioned in the USDA glossary.  Perishables, meats, dairy, have a different reference.


Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. USDA policies indeed have ‘use-by’ dates on infant formula, and other infant foodstuffs, where its safe use is specific.


A chart of use dates:


Sell-By:  Reflects “peak freshness” of the product.


Best By: The product is at its best when used by this date but you can continue to use the product past the date.


Use By:  The last date the producer will accept responsibility for freshness.


Pack Date:  The date the product was packed/canned.  Not an expiration date.


Expiration Date:  The date by which the food should be used. In some cases the food can still be consumed.


Peter Hamilton

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