We’ve become so used to seeing “best before” dates on food that we’re now applying the idea to other things — aging musicians, for example. We talk as if food, and a lot of other stuff, has a definite time when it stops being any good and may even start being harmful.
But what exactly is the “best before” date, and how does it compare to “use by”, “sell by”, and “expiry” dates? What does the ordinary shopper need to know about all these?
First of all, marking food this way is not required by law, except for baby food and baby formula. The manufacturers do it voluntarily. So, no, government agents are not the only thing protecting you from three-year-old cereal.
Next, it’s good to know what the different terms mean. According to the USDA:
- “Sell by” means just that. Although you’ll often see food marked down on or near its “sell by” date, it’s still fine.Whether and how long it stays that way depends on how you store it at home.
- “Best before” is not a “nice” way of saying “goes bad on”. It just means the food won’t taste as fresh after that date. It’s still safe to eat.
- “Use by”, though it sounds more serious, has a similar meaning: Use by this date if you want to catch it at its best.
- “Expires” (sometimes shortened to “exp”) is a real deadline — after this date, the food may make you sick.
It’s the manufacturers who set these dates, and while they’re certainly concerned with not making their customers sick, they’re also trying to build and protect their product’s reputation for tasting good.