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Use by vs. sell by date: what’s the difference?

By Leigh Ann Rutledge
Accent Editor

Wasting away...
Dictionary.com states the proverb (defined as “A brief, memorable saying that expresses a truth or belief”) “Waste not, want not” originated in 1772. 

An earlier version of the proverb “Willful waste makes woeful want,” traces its roots to 1576. The definition of the proverb says, “If we don’t waste what we have, we’ll still have it in the future and will not lack (want) it.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates food waste in the US is between 30-40 percent of the food supply. In 2010, an estimated 133 billion pounds of food from US retail food stores, restaurants, and homes was not consumed. The amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at $390 per US consumer in 2008.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates the average American throws away around 20 pounds of food each month. Fresh food products make up a majority of wasted food. The USDA reports a typical American throws out 40 percent of fresh fruit, 23 percent of eggs, and 20 percent of milk.

Why is so much food wasted? Household waste is due in part to overpurchasing, spoilage and plate waste. Two-thirds of household waste is due to food spoilage from not being used in time; the remaining one-third is caused by cooking or serving too much food.

One of the ways to reduce food waste is to learn when food goes bad. What does “sell by” and “use by” really mean?

•“Best if Used By (or Before)” dates: Tell how long product is likely to remain at its absolute best quality when unopened and stored properly. After the date has passed, consumers may notice gradual changes in the unopened products texture, color, or flavor. As long as the item has been stored properly and is unopened, the item can generally be consumed beyond this date. According to the USDA, these date are not a purchase or safety date. Officials are quick to state, consumers should smell and examine the product before using. Discard any items, which have an odor or odd flavor or appearance. Use by and best dates are usually for shelf-stable products, such as mustard, mayonnaise, peanut butter.

•Use-By date: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date is determined by the manufacturer of the product.

•Sell-By date: Usually found on perishables like meat, seafood, poultry and milk. The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product. Consumers should purchase items before the sell by date expires. However, you can store some items at home for some time beyond the date as long as you follow safe storage procedures.

•Expires on date: Usually found on infant formula and baby foods. These products should always be used before the expiration date has passed.

•Packing codes: Often appear as a series of letters and/or numbers on the package. They may indicate date or time of manufacture and may be used to locate food in case of recall.
There are many different ways to interpret “use by”and “sell by” dates. There are many websites available to answer questions regarding usage, storage and wasting food.

Websites reference for this article include:
www.usda.gov, www.stilltasty.com, www.fda.gov, www.nrdc.org, www.foodsafety.gov, and www.shelflifeadvice.com.

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