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Sell-by, Use-by, Expiration Dates | Download Free Poster

Sell-by, best-by, use-by dates

Food products for sale are commonly labeled with dates on their packaging. The meaning of dates can vary as they can be preceded by phrases such as sell by date, use by date, best before date, or expiration date. These phrases can indicate different meanings, which could significantly affect a food handler's decision-making process and the consumer's safety. As each type of this date-marking phrase expects different decisions by food handlers, understanding the labels is essential to avoid confusion and ensure the safety of the products.
Key points from this article:
  1. Product dates refer to the last date at which a product is at its peak quality or safety.
  2. In the U.S., product dates are often used to indicate quality rather than safety.
  3. Product dating can be categorized as either closed or open dating.
  4. The "Sell-by" date indicates the last allowable date for displaying products.
  5. "Use-by" and "best-before" dates are quality markers, indicating the product's last day of peak quality.
  6. "Freeze by" dates indicate the last day that a product can be frozen to retain its peak quality.
  7. The "expiration date" refers to an absolute time frame for the safety of a product.
  8. Proper product dating can ensure food safety, retain food quality, decrease food waste, and help avoid food issues.
  9. In the U.S., date marking is not an absolute law (except for infant formula).
  10. Food businesses can use FoodDocs' smart Food Safety Management System to automatically calculate and track shelf-life dates of raw ingredients and food products. 
Failure to understand the meaning of the sell-by date phrase and other date-marking labels in stores is a significant factor in the increasing generation of waste from the food industry worldwide and foodborne illnesses outbreaks. 
Here is a list of topics that we covered in-depth in this article:
Not sure whether your food product is still safe to use or not? Read through this article on food safety and understand how our food safety poster and digital Food Safety Management System can help you manage your products.

What are product dating and shelf-life?

Food product dating or date marking refers to the process of indicating the last date that a product is safe to eat or at its peak quality. It is done to give food handlers and consumers the idea of whether a food product can still be used for cooking or not. The labels are commonly printed on the primary packaging and boxes of food.
Different food products can only last for a definite amount of time in proper storage conditions and in the absence of food contamination from bacteria. Beyond the estimated period of time, food spoilage can occur, which increases the risk of causing foodborne illness or food poisoning when consumed.
In the U.S., the indicated date on food products is an estimation of the product's shelf-life or quality and not of food safety. A product's shelf-life pertains to how long its optimum quality is acceptable to consumers.

What types of product dating are there?

Manufacturers and food servers use several different product dating phrases, which are mainly divided into two categories: "Open dating" and "Close dating."
Closed dating is a labeling strategy that shows codes referring to the date of food packaging by the manufacturer. This type of date-marking method is commonly used on shelf-stable products such as canned foods, which can last anywhere between 12-18 months. Closed dating is often represented with a three-digit number in place of the consecutive day of the year. For example, December 31 is labeled with the three-digit code 365, and January 1 is 001.
On the other hand, open dating is the type of date-marking strategy used to help stores identify the allowable time to display or use the product content. Open dating uses alpha-numeric symbols to indicate the dates (e.g., January 15 2023, or Jan 15). Open dating is used on products such as meat, dairy products, and poultry.
You might have noticed different phrases next to the expiration dates marked on food products. Some of the common phrases include sell-by, use-by, and freeze-by. Below we discuss their distinctions.

What is the difference between sell-by, use-by, freeze-by, or expiration date?

The phrases used for product dating can have different meanings depending on the words used to present the dates on the product. Understanding these terminologies can help food handlers determine a product's safety and quality.
Below are the most commonly used common product dating labels:

"Sell-by" date meaning

Sell-by date label is used on foods displayed in stores and refers to the maximum allowable time for the product to be displayed. This label is used to guide food retailers and manufacturers.

How long are eggs good for after the sell-by date?

If eggs and egg products are refrigerated and free from the risk of contamination when they exceed their indicated sell-by dates on egg cartons, they can still be good for four to five more weeks, provided that they are not yet spoiled. Food handlers can keep eggs safe from spoilage and harmful bacteria by refrigerating them upon purchase. Eggs in stable room temperatures can also keep the egg fresh but less than when they are stored on the refrigerator shelf.

How long is milk good after sell by date?

Unopened milk products in their original carton are predicted to still be good past their sell-by dates. For unopened, refrigerated milk, the grace period is only up to 2 to 3 days past the sell-by date. After this recommended time, the risk of illness as a result of consuming milk past its "sell-by" pack date increases.
The shelf-life of milk and product quality indicated in the labeling on milk cartons may also depend on the type of product you have. Raw milk, when the carton of milk is refrigerated, can last for 7 to 10 days. On the other hand, refrigerated ultra-pasteurized milk can last anywhere between 30 to 90 days. Spoiled milk will develop sensory clues, such as curds with a sour smell.

How long is chicken good after the sell-by date?

Fresh, packed chicken products or raw poultry in its original packaging can last in the refrigerator for up to 2 days past its sell-by date. Food handlers can freeze the uncooked chicken on or before this date to extend its shelf-life or cook the raw chicken and poultry products.
When freezing poultry products, use quality freezer bags or airtight containers to reduce the potential of cross-contamination between the chicken meat and other food items and the growth of bacteria. Signs of spoilage in chicken products, including ground poultry, comprise foul chicken smell, slime production on the surface, and potential change in the color of skin.

How long is meat good after the sell-by date?

In general, raw meat can be safe to consume for up to 3 to 5 days after the indicated sell-by date if the ingredient was properly refrigerated. On the other hand, cooked meat can be safe for up to 4 days.
Regardless of this estimate, food handlers must still cautiously observe the raw and cooked food for any signs of spoilage. If there is any sign, then the meat product should be disposed of immediately.

Best if used by or before or best by date meaning

This phrase indicates the maximum amount of time when the food will have its best flavor and acceptable quality. It is intended to guide consumers and retailers. This date label is often labeled on non-perishable food items, such as canned goods, dry goods, and some packaged foods, such as crackers or chips.
This date is not a safety date but rather an indication of when the product is likely to be at its peak quality. After this date, the product may not be at its optimal quality, but it is still generally safe to consume as long as there are no signs of spoilage or damage.

Use by date meaning

"Use-by" dates give food handlers the idea regarding the last recommended date for a product to be used at its peak quality. With the exception of infant formula cases, it is not a safety label.

How long after the use-by date can you eat it?

For infant formula or baby food, the indicated use-by date is mandatory. The product should not be consumed after the indicated date.
If the date label is used for other products, then it serves as an indication of the product's quality more than safety. Past the use-by date, the product may not perform, taste, or look the same as intended.

Is a use-by date an expiration date?

The use-by date is not similar to an expiration date stamp unless used for infant formula. A use-by date is a recommendation from the manufacturer or producer indicating the date by which the product should be used for the best quality and safety.

Freeze-by date meaning

Tells food handlers the maximum date when a product can be frozen to preserve peak quality. If you freeze a product before the freeze-by date, it should maintain its quality and safety for a longer period. Refrigerated products are less prone to fast food spoilage.
The freeze-by date is different from the sell-by date or use-by date, which are used to indicate when the product is at its best quality or when it may no longer be safe to consume. The freeze-by date, on the other hand, is an indication of the last date by which the product should be frozen to maintain its optimal quality and safety.

Expiration date meaning

The labeling term "expiration date" is an absolute date that tells food handlers when an edible food is no longer safe for consumption. Expiration dates on food are commonly used in shelf-stable products.
To determine the exact shelf life safety of foods, experts perform several shelf life trials and quality testing in favorable conditions. After obtaining conclusive information from expiration-date testing, common expiry dates are then established.

How long do eggs last after the expiration date?

If eggs in shells are properly refrigerated, they can be safely consumed within a maximum time of five weeks. This means that eggs can still be consumed past the recommended egg expiration date of three weeks if refrigerated.
A carton of eggs sitting on a kitchen counter is expected to have a shorter average shelf life than when refrigerated.
Product dating labels are used to estimate the shelf-life of food products.
Shelf-life is a common term used to indicate how long a product is at its peak quality and is an inclusive term for the wholesomeness of the product.
These types of date-marking labels and their indications are all based on the food safety guidance released by the U.S. food safety agencies. Indications and applications of the date labels may vary in context when observed on foods manufactured in other countries. Regardless of which phrase is used on your product, monitoring them is an essential part of your food safety management system.
FSMS FoodDocs

Are foods safe after the due date passes?

Generally, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service advise that foods past the due dates on food labels are still safe to eat unless they exhibit signs of spoilage. Remember that this advice does not apply to baby food or infant formula.
Depending on the storage conditions of products, foods can exceed the recommended sell-by date and other product labels declared on the carton pack. Suppose the recommended storage instructions are followed, the food container is uncompromised, and there is no presence of spoilage bacteria. In that case, the product may be safe to consume after its due date, but with the potential decrease in quality.
Food safety agencies also advise food handlers and consumers to practice keen observation when using foods past their due dates. Closely observe the product for spoilage characteristics and past use-by dates. Signs of spoilage include bad smell and off-flavor, discoloration, visible colonies of spoilage bacteria, and softening of the product. Spoiled foods can cause foodborne illnesses in consumers.

Is product dating mandatory?

In the U.S., food manufacturers are not required to indicate product dating under any federal regulation and food law. The only exemption to this rule is for infant formula.
The only requirement of the U.S. food safety agencies is for food producers to indicate truthful dates which are not misleading to food handlers and consumers. Date labels for most high-risk, perishable foods are suggested to be indicated with the month and date, and for frozen products, the year should be added.
An appropriate phrase must also precede product date labels to explain their meaning.

Why is it important to pay attention to product dating?

Product dating was established to become a guide. Depending on the type of product dating used, the intention or target of the information may vary. For example, sell-by dates target retailers and manufacturers, whereas best-before dates can also cater to consumers.
Although simple, product dating has a significant impact on the food industry. Some of these impacts include:
  • Ensure food quality. Correct product dating can help food firms maximize the use of food products and protect customers from substandard services. With correctly labeled product dates, food handlers can make smarter decisions on whether a product is still fit to be displayed and sold.
  • Reduction of food waste. Recent studies and food safety news have shown that failure to understand product dates and incorrect labeling of food has led to an increase in food and drink waste. For example, when food handlers mistakenly understand the meaning of the sell-by date, the risk of concluding that the product is no longer fit to be reprocessed or reused increases. Understanding the difference between safety and food quality dates can help reduce food waste significantly.
  • Health and food safety. In some cases, products that are past their expiration date can be unsafe to consume or use and may harbor harmful bacteria or other contaminants that can cause illness.
  • Compliance with food regulations. In some jurisdictions, it is a legal requirement for manufacturers and retailers to label their products with expiration or best-before dates. Failure to comply with these regulations and food laws can result in fines and other penalties.

Product dating is an important aspect of food safety. Food manufacturers, retailers, and other food firms are required to indicate these labels as a guide for fellow food handlers and customers. Knowing which one to use is the responsibility of every food business operator.



What types of products do you need to date?

High-risk or perishable products, including poultry meat, beef, pork, dairy, and eggs, are examples of food products that are commonly labeled with date markings as a guide for food handlers and consumers. Common foods under this category are often labeled with the use-by date or sell-by date.
Shelf-stable foods are more commonly labeled with expiration dates using a closed dating code strategy. Canned goods can last significantly longer than fresh, packed food products.
Use our Canned Food Expiration Dates Chart to guide your food business team.

What can go wrong when dating products?

Product date markings are important information for food handlers. They indicate the quality of most foods and the safety of specific products. Food handlers must understand their difference to serve customers better and avoid misconceptions about the dates on food products that can lead to unnecessary waste.
Failure to understand and monitor food package date labels can lead to the following consequences:
  • Misuse of date-marking phrases can lead to misunderstanding. It is common for food handlers to become confused with the common date labels leading to their misuse. Using the wrong labels as a result of confusion over labeling can give the impression that wholesome food is no longer fit to be sold when it is still perfectly fine.
  • Wrong food dating can lead to inaccurate shelf-life or sell-by dates. When products are inaccurately labeled with sell-by dates, food handlers can be led to think that a product must be disposed of. This scenario can lead to a loss of profit through the generated food waste.
  • Failure to remember product labels increases the risk of forgetting to remove products past their sell-by dates.
Use our product date labeling poster to educate food handlers on their proper use and avoid erroneous decisions because of misunderstanding. In addition to this free poster, you can also use our intuitive digital solution at FoodDocs, which features a smart notification system to remind food handlers of sell-by dates. Learn more in the next section.

Who needs to monitor product dating?

Understanding and monitoring product dating are essential tasks for food manufacturers, food service businesses, and food retailers for selling and serving wholesome foods. Customers are very particular with this type of information. Food retailers selling food past their sell-by dates can draw flak from customers even if the date does not signify safety issues.
Additionally, food service businesses and food manufacturers using products past the indicated sell-by or other product dates increases the risk of producing foods with low quality. Food handlers must be adequately trained on how to label food products and understand food labels.

How can you help your team complete product dating?

Our Product Dating Poster is an efficient tool to help remind you and your employees about which dating labels to use and what each of the labels means. This poster can be a useful reminder for food handlers in a kitchen as well as employees in retail food stores.
Once food handlers understand the difference and importance of each label, the next task is to calculate the sell-by dates of each ingredient and food product. Mistakes in calculations can lead to inaccurate shelf-life and potentially disposing of products that are actually still safe to use.
What you need is an intuitive solution that will help food handlers remember such important information. FoodDocs' digital solutions can help your team stay on top of the shelf-life of food and ensure that they are used within their peak qualities.
When you use our digital solution, you can get benefits such as the following:
  • Calculate shelf-life dates using FoodDocs' software easily. You can save time by allowing our software to calculate the shelf-life of your food items automatically.
In addition to a full monitoring system with a Shelf Life Calculator, you can download our calculator tool for free. We suggest putting it up on your kitchen wall, in sight of your food handlers.
  • Get a smart notification system through our FoodDocs app that will alert the employees of your product's shelf-life or sell-by dates.
Shelf-life Calculator from FoodDocs
  • Use our software's Product Traceability System. This feature can help you keep track of your food products and ingredients in your inventory. Your team will be alerted according to your ingredient's shelf-life. With our Traceability System, you can ensure that every ingredient and product will be used before they expire. 
How can digital solutions save managers time?
FoodDocs Food Safety Management System goes beyond just managing your product's shelf-life. Our software can also help managers optimize their time for supervision.
  • Switching to FoodDocs' digital system only takes an average of 15 minutes.
  • Our software can save 30% of your time managing your production systems:
    • Use our software to create recipes with preparation instructions, allergen information, and other important product features.
    • Calculate and plan your production using our production planning application.
  • Archive and access food safety-related documents in our cloud-based system.
The process of switching to our digital Food Safety Management System is as easy as answering a few basic questions about your food business. Using artificial intelligence and a machine-learning program, our system can generate essential food safety documents based on your requirements.
What makes our system stand out on top of the easy generation is you can further customize the created food safety documents to fit your operations better. Switching to our digital solution can become your huge step towards becoming more sustainable, as there is no more need to print out your monitoring logs one by one after a revision.
Optimize your food product's ingredients and stay on top of their shelf-life now by using our free 14-day trial.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have more related and common questions regarding product labeling, sell-by dates, and other topics on food dating? Here are some of the most frequently asked food safety questions on product dating.

Is product dating for food safety or food quality a topic?

Product dating in the U.S. is done to guide food handlers and consumers on the maximum time that a product can be used with its quality at peak. Most date-marking phrases refer to quality. The only exception is for baby formula, which acts as a food safety guideline.
Date labels for infant formula indicate both safety and quality. The declared date on this type of product gives consumers the idea of when the formula is still safe to use and when the indicated original potency and nutritional information are still applicable.
How long can you eat food after the sell-by date?
After their sell-by date, the safety and quality of foods are on a case-to-case basis, except for infant formula. For example, milk is generally still good for a week after the indicated sell-by date or longer if it is refrigerated without temperature fluctuations. Other common items such as ground meat, fresh chicken, and fresh meat must be either cooked or frozen within two to five days past their sell-by dates, given that they are not spoiled yet.

Can you eat food past the sell-by date?

Most packaged foods are safe to be consumed even after the indicated sell-by date. This food product label is not a food safety label in the U.S. but rather an indication of peak freshness. As long as the food does not exhibit signs of food spoilage, then the food is still safe to be consumed. Despite this, expect a decline in the quality of the product.

Does the sell-by date matter?

The "Sell-by" date is a guidance phrase made for manufacturers and retailers. It is an important date label to show the last date that food businesses can put their product on sale for inventory management while at maximum freshness.

Is the sell-by date on meat reliable?

The sell-by date declared on raw meat, including ground meat, fresh beef, pork, and other meat products, is a general guide for food handlers. Date labels are often used as a guide for quality and are not considered safety dates. Raw meat past the sell-by date is expected to have quality issues rather than food safety issues. The federal government agency recommends cuts of meat to be used or frozen for at least 3 to 5 days upon purchase before the sell-by code date approaches. Frozen meat can last for up to 12 months.
Proper storage at the correct temperatures can extend the shelf-life of cuts of meat and delay expiration. Expired meat and poultry will often produce bad odor, significant change in color, slime on the surface, and disintegration of its firm consistency from the effects of microbial growth. Contamination from pathogenic bacteria can cause fresh meat to spoil faster than the indicated date label and increase the risk of causing symptoms of food poisoning.
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