Deciphering Food Label Dates: A Guide to Ensuring Safe Consumptions

Most people pay little attention to the dates on their food products, assuming that all food is safe to eat as long as it looks and smells okay. However, relying on sight and smell alone can be deceptive, as many foodborne illnesses arise from contamination of seemingly fresh and harmless food. To make informed choices about what we eat, we need to know how to interpret the various dates and labels on food packages and understand what they mean. In this blog post, we will discuss the different types of food labels and expiration dates commonly used, how they differ, and what they mean for the safety and nutrition of your food.

Expiration Date Vs. Sell-By Date

One of the most common types of labels found on food packages is the expiration date. This date indicates the last day that the product is guaranteed to be fresh and safe to eat. The expiration date is critical for perishable items such as dairy, meat, seafood, and deli, which can quickly grow harmful bacteria and cause food poisoning. On the other hand, the sell-by date is the date that retailers must remove the product from their shelves to ensure that it sells before its quality begins to decline. Selling food beyond this date is not illegal, but it may not be as fresh or nutritious as intended, so it is up to the consumer to evaluate its condition.

Best-By Date

Another type of label that you will see is the best-by date. This date indicates that the product will remain at peak quality until the indicated date, but it does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe to eat after that. Many packaged foods, such as canned goods, pasta, cereals, and dried herbs, can last years beyond their printed dates if stored correctly and sealed properly. The best-by date is primarily an indication of when the product will start to lose its flavor, texture, or nutritional value, so it is handy for keeping track of pantry stocks and reducing waste.

Use-By Date for Ready-to-Eat Foods

Finally, the use-by date is a label that applies to specific foods that are already cooked or ready to eat. These foods, such as salads, sandwiches, and sushi, contain potentially hazardous ingredients that can support the growth of dangerous microorganisms that cause foodborne illnesses. Therefore, the use-by date indicates the last date by which the products should be consumed to reduce the risk of illness. Always discard any ready-to-eat food that has exceeded the use-by date, even if it looks and smells okay.


Chocolate cake, for example, probably won’t kill us if eaten a day or two after its best-by date, but the same cannot be said for lunch meat past its use-by date. If you’re not sure whether to eat a particular food, try to ask yourself if it’s fresh, properly stored, and free from any signs of spoilage like mold, rancidity, or sliminess. If in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution and throw it away. The key takeaway is that understanding food labeling is essential for maintaining a safe and healthy diet. By using these labels as guides for food storage and consumption, you can ensure that you consume food that is fresh, nutritious, and safe to eat.

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