The Western world is notorious for overconsumption. We're stuck in a never-ending cycle of buying, consuming, and throwing out, without thinking about the real effects of this cycle. Hand-in-hand with this overconsumption is the massive amounts of waste that we produce. 40% of the food produced in America goes uneaten. Each year, approximately $165 billion of food is thrown away because of misinterpretations about sell by vs expiration date. 

Lexi Nickens

There is a ton of confusion about the way our food is labeled. One of the most apparent examples of this is the many terms used to outline when food should be consumed by. “Best before," “sell by,” and “use by” are among the many deadlines set by food manufacturers to tell consumers when their food quality will peak. However, this date does not indicate when your food is no longer safe to consume.

A survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute found that 90% of Americans throw away food due to confusion over sell by vs expiration dates. This translates into hundreds of dollars literally thrown away each year by American households.

So what's the difference between the sell by date vs the expiration date?

Sell By Date 

Kathryn Stouffer

Sell by dates should only be paid attention to by retailers. They literally mean nothing to consumers. The sell by date just tells grocers the last day that they should keep the product on the shelves. Even if you buy a product past its sell by date, it’s still safe. 

Expiration Date

dairy product, tea, coffee, milk
Natsuko Mazany

This is the real date you should pay attention to. Also termed the “use by” date or the “best before” date, this indicates when the product is the freshest. After the date specified, your food might not be the freshest it can be.

One of the biggest misconceptions about dates on food is that it's uniform across all food industries. This is so false because there is absolutely no federal oversight on food dating except for on infant formula. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) only notes that "dates may be voluntarily added provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading." No matter what date is specified on your products, by storing food properly you can safely consume them long past the expiration date. 

How do these dates even get developed? Food manufacturers have to take a number of factors into account such as the length of time it takes for the product to get distributed and sold, temperature at which the product is stored throughout distribution and at the retailer, ingredients in the product, and the type of packaging that the product is stored in. 

The Food Marketing Institute has proposed a new product label vocabulary to lessen some of the confusion surrounding product labeling. Changing the “best by” date to “best if used by” gives a better indication that it’s fine to consume the food after this date, but it may not be as fresh or as high quality. For more information, I encourage you to read FMI's guide to product dating.