What exactly are "best by" dates — and how do they contribute to food waste?

Hey, don't toss that carton of milk just yet — it may still be good

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published October 19, 2022 11:59AM (EDT)

Finger pointing at the expiry date on canned food (Getty Images/Wachiwit)
Finger pointing at the expiry date on canned food (Getty Images/Wachiwit)

Whether you're a strict follower of best by/use by/expiration dates (like my brother) or you merely shrug off any printed numbers and instead rely on your own senses of sight and smell, there is something undoubtedly suspect about the entire process.

Whilst some things are inarguable — mold on your bread, questionable skins forming on yogurt, rancid-smelling milk — there are a host of foods, drinks and foodstuff that can safely be enjoyed past the expiration date written on the carton. So where do these dates come from? Is it all just a big scam to get you to throw out perfectly healthy goods, inevitably spending double the money to replace everything that's gone "bad"? 

The USDA itself published a post earlier this month titled "Before You Toss Food, Wait. Check It Out!" The article note that: 1) food poisoning bacterias cannot lie or grow in the freezer 2) long-frozen foods may be dry or not-as-robust flavor-wise, but they'll still be safe.

Furthermore, "most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely," including canned goods which last years. Packaged, dried foods are also often safe past the "best by" date. In many instances, the food quality or taste may have diminished, but there's nothing inherently "unsafe" about these foods. Clearly, the line between "throw out food that's past the expiration date!" and "do your best to limit food waste!" has blurred more and more in recent years, which is evidenced by the existence of this literature from the USDA. 

If you're wondering about the ins-and-outs of best by dates, use by dates and expiration dates, CNN outlines it pretty well: "There's no national standard for how those dates should be determined, or how they must be described. Instead,  there's a patchwork system — a hodgepodge of state laws, best practices, and general guidelines."

The same article notes that "sell-by dates actually are more about protecting the brand than safety concerns." A 2019 FDA post notes that approximately 20% of food waste is due to packaging with incorrect or improperly labeled expiration dates. In most instances, companies are estimating a date by when that food item might still taste best, but legally, the only foodstuff required to list a use-by date is baby formula, as stated by CNN.

Because there is no catch-all system, varying companies dictate their own rules on use-by dates. CNN does note, though, that some "fresh meat and poultry could go bad even before the date on the label," so always be sure to use your eyes and nose to determine if you should be cooking up that chicken cutlet or not.

The entire notion of use-by dates came to be in the 1970s, called "open dating," which was reported about in The New York Times in February 1973. At that time, it was apparently deemed a success because "open dating had slashed ... half the number of consumer complaints of purchasing stale or spoiled food."

By 1979, though, another study by a now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment noted that "there is little evidence to support or to negate the contention that there is a direct relationship between open shelf-dating and the actual freshness of food." 

Because of the lack of uniformity amongst purveyors and food companies, this practice is still just as dubious — practically 50 years later. To go further into the debate, what's the difference between "best by" and "use by" dates?

2021 Food Date Labeling Act notes that safety issues come under "use by," while food quality issues go by "best if used by." However, how the heck is the average shopper or consumer to know this? There are also "enjoy by" and "sell by" dates, as well as general expiry dates. To sum it all up, it's a mess, and has been for nearly half a century (and there is no government solution to make it more clear in sight). 

In a Vox article, Alissa Wilkinson notes that "40% of food produced in America heads to the landfill or is otherwise wasted ... every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275, according to a landmark 2013 study."

Vox also notes that while these "use by" and "best by" dates may be "mostly well-intentioned," they're also "not actually expiration dates at all," which in turn compounds the aforementioned issues, including "wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, and food insecurity."

There are also disparities not only from company to company, but also state to state: a package of chicken in Nebraska may be packaged with totally different "use by" dates than a chicken package in Utah. But as Wilkinson puts it, the fact that so many Americans read a "best by" label as a "bad after" date is partially a public education problem — one that manufacturers haven't worked too hard to combat. 

To put it into context, Philly Magazine notes that according to a 2013 study, a whopping 90% of Americans don't know that this is what the labels mean. Rosemary Trout, program director of Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University's Center for Food and Hospitality Management, tells Philly Magazine that "there's a difference between spoilage and safety."

Philly Magazine also notes an interesting observation: "The more whole, unprocessed foods you buy and eat, the less you'll find yourself confronted by expiration dates."

Most loose, bulk fruits and vegetables are completely unencumbered by expiration dates, and most people rely entirely on their own intuition and senses to determine once an apple has gone bad. Philly also notes that "the big food-poisoning outbreaks you read about aren't caused by foods that are past their expiration dates." Instead, they are likely the result of contamination, cross-contamination or the presence of allergens, as opposed to "the presence of bacteria or viruses" as a result of truly expired food. 

To put this notion into practice, Bon Appetit has even offered advice on safe ways to utilize technically "expired" milk, such as baking with it, cooking with it, using it as you would buttermilk or — of course —making cheese. Taste of Home lists some items that can generally be consumed past their use-by dates, as well, ranging from eggs, bread (without any mold, of course) and pasta, as well as packaged and frozen foods.

Again, I'm not advising you to rebel and radically oppose any form of an expiration date, feverishly drinking expired milk and eating chicken that smells odious. But, it's important for your wallet, your food consumption and our world at large that you're not just haphazardly tossing any item that has come close to its "use by" date. Use your discretion, use your sense of smell and perhaps we can all help out a bit and mitigate the sheer amount of food waste.


By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Best By Dates Commentary Expiration Dates Food Safety Food Waste Use By Dates