Best-By, Sell-By, Use-By, but WHY?

We’ve all done it before. You open the pantry door, grab that can of green beans at the back, look at the date, say “ew”, and just chunk it. Sometimes this is the right move but sometimes we don’t consider the hyphenated words behind that date:  “Best-by”, “Sell-by”, and “Use-by”, and we toss a perfectly fine canned good. The United States has a food waste issue:  according to the United States Department of Agriculture Americans tossed 133 billion pounds of food and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.  A contributing factor to this issue is the consumer confusion over date labeling, what the differences are between types of labels, and how the consumer can use them.

“Best-by” is the date label that most often confuses people. This date label is directed and intended for consumers to use. This label is the producer’s indication on about which date that product should be consumed by to assure for ideal quality.  After this date, the producer’s own research estimates that the taste, smell, and consistency will deteriorate from the producer’s “ideal quality” of what the food should be like.  If we looked at a bell curve on the lifespan of a green bean, this “best-by” date would the very top of the curve.

“Use-by” is a date label that is directed at the consumer for a similar reason as the “best-by” label, but unlike the “best-by”, it does not denote a peak in quality.  On the “use-by” date, food quality will have deteriorated some, but would still have a quality the producer is happy with people consuming. To continue our bell curve analogy, “use-by” would be a little way on the down slope from that “ideal quality” peak.

“Sell-by” is a date label that is useless to the general consumer because its only use is to inform retailers. Stores use this date for inventory and purchasing needs. The “sell-by” date indicates to retail employees that the next shipment of products may be coming soon and that the can on the shelf should either be sold soon or rotated off the shelf.

Note that none of the above date labels represent the safety of a product. If the date passes during home storage, given that the product was not mishandled, damaged, or improperly stored, the product should remain safe for some time after the date. While an off odor, flavor, texture or visible film or growth indicates that a product as spoiled, not all unsafe foods develop these obvious signs of going bad. Some products may seem perfectly fine but may still harbor microorganisms that can make us sick. Exercise caution with all foods, even if the date is months away, and use common sense. When in doubt utilize the USDA’s recommendation on the viability of canned goods. Canned goods with low-acid content like meats, stews, and certain vegetables can be shelf stable for 2 to 5 years from the time of canning. Canned goods with high-acid content like tomato, tomato products, citrus, berries, and fermented products can be shelf stable for 12 to 18 months from the time of canning. Keep in mind that these are the best-case scenarios for canned goods that have been kept in lower temperatures, do not have sharp dents, or have not rusted. If a canned good has sharp dents, rust, bulging sides or tops, has been exposed to high temperatures, or the contents burst from the can upon opening, these are signs that the food may no longer be safe and should be disposed of.

For more information about food safety, contact Family & Community Health agent Chris Coon at 254-435-2331 or via email at chris.coon@ag.tamu.edu.

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