Use-By, Sell-By, and Best-By: What's the Difference?

Mature woman checking package of meat, rear view, close-up

Getty Images / Noel Hendrickson

Americans waste a lot of food by tossing out products that are spoiled or not consumed beyond a specified date. In fact, a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics estimates that the average household wastes about 32 percent of the food it buys.

Although some of this waste can be attributed to perishable items spoiling before consumption, it also includes foods being tossed due to not understanding the difference between “use-by,” “sell-by,” and “best-by” dates. 

Before getting into each label and what they mean, it’s important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require manufacturers to label food for safety, except on infant formula. Adding to the confusion, there are no universally accepted descriptions or labels, so manufacturers can choose what to use. 

The dates you see on packaged foods such as meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products are suggestions from the manufacturers indicating a time frame for experiencing the best quality of the product. 

With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about the difference between “use-by,” “sell-by,” and “best-by.” 

What Is Use-By?

The “use-by” label indicates when a product should be eaten. Typically, a manufacturer sets this date as the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality, not because it will make you sick if you eat it.

However, if you keep an item beyond the “use-by” date, the quality is likely to decrease, and safety could be lessened. Other than infant formula, a “use-by” label does not indicate a safety date. 

What Is Sell-By?

In general, the “sell-by” label on a product is there for retailers to know when a product should be sold by or removed from the shelf. This label is not directed at consumers, nor is it a safety date. Retailers such as grocery stores will monitor items with a “sell-by” date. 

When a product reaches this date, retailers will pull it from the shelves. To avoid loss, it’s not uncommon to see products offered at a reduced cost a few days before the “sell-by” date. Many items are considered safe to consume for several days after a “sell by” date. The “sell-by” label is often found on fresh or prepared foods. 

What Is Best-By?

The “best-by” label is used by a manufacturer to indicate a date the food or product should be consumed to assure ideal quality. It is not a purchase or safety date, and it does not mean the item is bad or spoiled after this date. Before eating a product beyond its “best-by” date, it’s a good idea to check for spoilage. If the item smells or looks spoiled, you might want to throw it out. 

Can You Eat Food Beyond These Dates?

Whether or not you decide to eat or drink products that have passed the “use-by,” “sell-by,” or “best-by” date is a personal decision. Some people toss items once they reach the labeled date, while others are comfortable consuming food a few days or weeks after the labeled dates. 

According to the USDA, if the date passes during home storage, the product may still be safe if handled properly until spoilage is evident. Spoilage signs to be aware of include food that develops an off odor, products that taste bad, or food that develops a different texture. This process can happen much faster if you do not properly store or handle food at home.

To maximize freshness and safety, you should refrigerate or freeze perishables right away. This means when you get home from the store, items that require refrigeration need to get put away first. In general, you should not leave any items needing refrigeration out at room temperature for longer than two hours or one hour if the air temperature is above 90 degrees.

You can find specific time limits for home refrigeration and freezing foods on FoodSafety.gov.

Shelf-stable foods last much longer than fresh or perishable food. The USDA defines shelf-stable as foods you can store safely at room temperature.

These are non-perishable items such as canned goods, rice, pasta, flour, sugar, spices, oils, and more. If canned food is not shelf-stable, it will have a “keep refrigerated” label on it. Many shelf-stable products can be safely used after the “sell-by” date. 

Yes, There Is an App for That

If you’re unsure how to decide what to eat and what to toss, the USDA has a FoodKeeper App that can help you understand food and beverage storage as well as what to keep and when to toss. 

Developed in partnership with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, the FoodKeeper App is an excellent tool to use when determining the freshness and quality of items such as poultry, beef, grains, and more. 

When you click on a category, you then have the option to choose a specific food item. For example, if you choose meat, then fresh ground beef, the app says, “for freshness and quality, this item should be consumed witting 1-2 days if refrigerated from the date of purchase, or 3-4 months if frozen from the date of purchase.” 

Other Ways to Avoid Wasting Food

In addition to paying attention to dates and labels, the FDA also recommends the following tips.

  • When grocery shopping, only buy what you need, especially perishable foods. 
  • Avoid purchasing food close to the “sell-by” date. Only buy it if you plan on eating or freezing it right away.
  • Keep your refrigerator temperature at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. 
  • Keep your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. 
  • Use containers or sealed bags to store foods before placing them in the refrigerator or freezer.
  • Keep peeled or cut fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator instead of at room temperature.
  • Do not keep or eat foods after being left out at room temperature for two hours unless you’re keeping them hot or cold. Reduce this time to one hour if the air temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above. 

A Word From Verywell

Being aware of labeling on products can help you avoid waste, stay safe, and save money. When shopping, pay attention to the “use-by” or “best-by” dates. If you don’t plan on consuming or freezing items by those dates (or within a few days beyond), consider passing on that food or looking for a package with a different date. 

Food safety is also determined by proper handling and storage of products once you get them home. To maximize freshness and quality and minimize illness, refer to the FDA and USDA food safety and storage charts. Also, consider downloading the FoodKeeper App to help you determine freshness and safety. 

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Article Sources
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  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Shelf-stable food safety. Updated March 2015.

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