‘Follow your senses’: What do grocery ‘best by’ labels really mean?

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
  • The USDA says dates are not an indicator of product safety
  • Only infant formula is required by federal law to be dated
  • Find out what commonly used food phrases really mean (it's probably not what you think)

Grocery-expiration labels can be intimidating, especially for dairy and meats.

Manufacturers give their best guess as to when food will reach its peak quality with phrases like “best by,” “use by” and “sell by." 

But, officially, the USDA says dates don't indicate product safety. Only infant formula is required by federal law to be dated. 

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"Date labels usually indicate when food will be at its optimal freshness," said Nina Sevilla, program advocate for the food waste-fighting Natural Resources Defense Council. "If you have food a couple of days past that date, it likely means it’s still okay to consume."

A shopper walks through a grocery store in Washington, DC, on June 14, 2022.

Nevertheless, dozens of different date labels cause enough confusion to convince people to toss out food too soon, contributing to staggering waste. About 40% of the food marked for consumption in the U.S. goes uneaten.

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Sevilla said the best way to know if your food has gone bad is through your senses.

"In most cases, your body has a natural, foul reaction to the taste or smell of spoiled food," she said. "Our reaction to spoiled food is evolutionary. We’ve fine-tuned our senses to keep us safe from ingesting things that might hurt us."

To curb unnecessary waste, the NRDC is calling for federal action to standardize food date labels. Until then, here's how to decipher what you might find at the grocery store, plus how to press pause on ripening with your freezer.

What commonly used food phrases mean

  • "Best if used by/before" When food is estimated to be at its best in terms of flavor or quality. It is not a safety date.
  • "Sell by" This tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date. 
  • "Use by" This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when used on infant formula.
  • "Freeze by" This indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a safety date.
Use this QR code to learn even more about how to decipher product dates and labels.

How to freeze your food

One good way to extend the life of food beyond its date is to freeze it. It’s like pushing the pause button on your food. Almost anything can be frozen, even eggs. Here's how:

  • Eggs should not be frozen in their shells. Lightly beaten eggs can be frozen in an airtight container, with 1-inch headspace, or sealed in a zip-top bag with as much air removed as possible. Yolks can be frozen alone if mixed with 1 tsp salt per 1 pint, and whites can be frozen without salt.
  • Milk can be frozen for up to three months, but whole milk is likely to separate. Thawed milk is best for cooking or baking. Freeze in airtight containers, leaving 1-inch headspace. You can also freeze it in ice-cube trays, then seal the frozen cubes in a zip-top freezer bag. Thaw in the refrigerator. Do not freeze again.
  • Cheese can be frozen but may become crumbly and lose flavor. It's best to use previously frozen cheese for cooking. Very soft cheeses such as Brie will not freeze well.
  • Bacon: Overwrap unopened packages with heavy-duty foil. If you've opened the package, layer slices between wax or parchment paper, wrap tightly with the paper and store in a sealed zip-top freezer bag.
  • Apples: Wash, peel, core and slice raw apples and sprinkle them with lemon juice. Place them directly on a baking sheet and freeze, then transfer them to an airtight container. 
  • Find more food storage tips at savethefood.com/storage.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com