Food Dating on Packages – Are They for Food Safety or Quality?

Prevent Waste and Save Money by Understanding What These Mean

The dates you see on food are to indicate food quality. Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety. Other food products are still safe to consumer after these dates.

    A "Best if Used By/Before" indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.

    A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.

    A "Use-By" date 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.

The Difference between Food Safety and Food Quality?

Food that is safe has been handled in a way that minimizes the risk of getting ill as a result of eating the food. Food quality refers to how the food looks, how fresh it is, etc. So, for example, although a food such as a box of breakfast cereal or a carton of milk may be close to or past its expiration date, it may still be safe to eat. The quality (tastiness, freshness or crunchiness) of food products may deteriorate after the date passes, but such products should still be safe to eat if they have been handled safely.

Proper Handling to Keep Food Safe

Proper handling means storing perishable food products in a refrigerator at 40 °F or colder or freezing the food at 0 °F, and not leaving perishable food at room temperature for more than two hours.  

Date Labeling and Food Waste

Confusion over the meaning of food product dates can result in consumers discarding wholesome food that is safe to eat.

To reduce food waste and to save food dollars, it is important that consumers understand that the dates applied to food are for quality and not for safety. Food products are safe to consume past the date on the label. Regardless of the date, consumers should evaluate the quality of the food product prior to its consumption. If a food has developed an “off” odor, flavor or texture, no matter what the date code says, it should not be eaten.

More information on food product dating.

The Food Keeper on how to properly store food.

Photo courtesy USDA



Mary Choate
Food Safety Field Specialist
Assoc Field Specialist
Phone: 603-787-6944
Office: Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824