Food Date Labeling: What’s That Date Mean?

Dates that are printed on food packaging are often misunderstood by consumers, resulting in massive amounts of food waste each year. Infant formula is the only food product required by federal rules to have a product date. Meat, poultry, and egg products under the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may voluntarily include a date label under FSIS rules. Terms such as “Best if Used By/Before,” “Sell By,” and “Use By” are all phrases used to refer to quality, not safety. Because of this, people often throw away perfectly good food items.

You may feel uneasy eating food once the date on the label has passed. No matter what the package date is, the USDA recommends using safe food handling practices and looking for signs of spoilage to guarantee safety. The USDA states that spoiled foods will have an “off” odor, flavor, or texture because of bacteria. If a food has signs of spoilage, it should not be eaten. Look for signs of spoilage both at the grocery store and at home. Recall that if safe food handling practices are not used, foodborne bacteria can grow before or after the package date. A useful tool to help keep food safe is the USDA’s FoodKeeper App that lists how to store and consume foods.

Thankfully, there are plans to make food date labeling easier to understand. The Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 has been introduced which would standardize date labels on food products to make things more clear for consumers leading to less food waste. For questions regarding food safety and to find the FoodKeeper App, visit

Source: Jean Najor, RDN, MS, Nutrition Extension Specialist