The Use By Date - what does it really mean?

24 Oct 2013 09.56 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

In many places in the world, food manufacturers are required by law to provide guidelines to consumers about how they should store their food and for how long. These guidelines – often in the form of Sell By, Use By, Best Before and Expiration dates – are intended to provide nutritional information to consumers and prevent outbreaks of illness. But what do they really mean?


With such a variety of products on offer at your local grocery store or supermarket, deciphering the hieroglyphics of food packaging can be a challenge for even the savviest consumer. That’s why we’ve pulled together a handy Rosetta Stone to understand how your food has been labelled, identify if it has an expiration date and learn whether or not that date is flexible.


How can I check if my food has been labelled?

Pick your product up and turn it over to see if a date has been printed on the packaging. Common places to look include the manufacturer’s label, beside the nutritional information and even on the underside or top of the product. Some manufacturers will print the message clearly and legibly on an easy to spot section of the product – for example “Best Before 24 January 2015”. Other manufacturers may convey an abbreviated version of the same information in a difficult to spot place. Depending on where you hail from you may have seen something like “BBE JAN.15” on the underside of a jar of peanut butter for example.


What does it mean?


Sell By

If the product you’ve picked up has a Sell By date, this is the last day that a grocery store or supermarket can offer that product for sale. Products with a Sell By date will keep on average for 10 days after they have been purchased. advises that red meat should be consumed 1-2 days and chicken 3-5 days after its Sell By date, unless frozen. While dairy products like milk can last up to a week, cheeses up to 2 weeks and eggs up to 5 weeks after their specified Sell By date if properly stored.


Best Before

If a product has a Best Before date, this means that it will retain its peak nutritional value and flavour until that date. Once that date passes, if you have stored the product correctly it will still be safe to consume. The amount of time that you can extend a product’s Best Before date will vary depending on what kind of product it is. Refer to the guidelines below for more information.


Use By

The Use By date is just another way of saying Best Before. Once again this refers only to the quality of the product – things like flavour, texture and nutrient levels. The Use By date can be flexible so take a look at the below guidelines to find out more.


Expiration Date

This date is one that is worth paying attention to. Very few products contain an Expiration date – but when they do this means that the product is no longer safe to consume.


How flexible can I be with these dates?

Leslie Beck, BodyScience Medical’s National Director of Nutrition in an interview with the Globe and Mail suggests the following guidelines to use when considering how flexible you can be with the date on a product’s packaging (so long as it’s not an Expiration date): 


•“Milk: 7 days after “best before” date, opened or unopened

•Yogurt: 7 to 10 days, opened or unopened

•Cheese, hard: 3 to 4 weeks opened, 6 months unopened

•Butter: 4 weeks after best before date, opened or unopened

•Eggs, in shell: 4 weeks

•Eggs, hard-cooked: 1 week

•Fresh meat: 2 to 4 days

•Fresh ground meat: 1 to 2 days

•Deli meats: 3 to 4 days

•Fresh chicken or turkey, whole or pieces: 2 to 3 days

•Fresh ground poultry: 1 to 2 days

•Cooked chicken: 3 to 4 days

•Fresh fish: 2 to 3 days

•Fresh shellfish: 12 to 24 hours

•Leftover soups, stews, casseroles: 3 to 4 days

•Jams and jellies: 3 to 4 months, opened

•Mayonnaise: 2 to 3 months, opened

•Mustard: 1 year, opened

•Ketchup: 6 months, opened

•Salad dressing or vinaigrette, bottled: 6 to 9 months, opened

•Salsa, bottled: 4 weeks, opened”

Source: The Globe and Mail


Use your senses

While these guidelines are useful – don’t forget to use your senses like sight, smell and touch to tell if a product is no longer safe to eat. Visible mould spots and discolouration can mean that a product has been contaminated by bacteria, while an “off” smell can mean that the fermentation process has gone too far and the product you’re hoping to eat has started to rot. Similarly, excessive softness or hardness can mean that your food has gone bad.


As a rule – think of how the product should appear in its fresh form and then use your senses to assess it. If it’s the way that it should be, it’s been stored properly and it’s within the above dates, chances are it’s good to eat.


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