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A study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB) has found that consumers in the US are often confused by the two date labelling system.

The two date system incorporates “Best if Used By” and “Use By” terms, however, they are not federally standardized, so other terminology (such as ‘best before’) may be used.

The online study, which surveyed 2607 respondents, found “the majority of respondents use-date labels to make decisions and believe they know what the labels mean; however, only 64.0% and 44.8% knew the general meaning of the Best If Used By and Use By labels.”

The study recommended that consumers need further education about the two-date labelling system to help them make more informed food choices and to cut down on food waste or possible food-related illnesses.

supermarket shopping

Forbes estimates that households spend as much as $2000 per year on wasted food, and that that “20% of consumer food waste occurs because people are confused by date labels.”

Below, I’ll break down the difference between Best if Used By, Use By, and Sell By labelling.

What does “Best If Used By” mean?

Mince Expiry
Image Source: Jono Elderton

Best if used buy refers to the date recommended that you use the product for best physical and/or sensory quality. Think of this as a firm suggestion of best quality, rather than an instruction on exactly what to do.

It is the date by which consumption is recommended by the supermarket or producer, to be the best version of that product for freshness, taste, and quality.

The term “best before” essentially means the same thing. It’s also a recommendation for the peak quality of the food, not an expiration date.

Two things to note: Supermarkets and stores are able to sell products where the ‘best if used by’ date has passed. And also, food can be enjoyed past this date (from 1-2 days or 2-3 weeks) before spoiling.

What is the “Use By” date?

Milk Expiry
Image Source: Jono Elderton

‘Use by’ date should be considered a concrete expiration date. It is a directive that should not be ignored by the consumer regarding food safety and possible spoilage.

Eat the food by the date on the label, or throw it away. There is no wriggle room.

It’s illegal for retailers and supermarkets to sell foods that are past their ‘use by’ date.

What does “Sell by Date” mean?

While not included in the JNEB study, “sell by” date labelling is also important.

The ‘sell by’ date is aimed at retailers more than consumers, as an indicator of how long food should remain on the shelves or display before being removed from sale.


I know it seems like common sense, however, the rate of food wastage, and the 48 million+ cases of food poisoning each year suggests more widespread clarification may be needed.

In simplest terms possible, you are able to eat food after the “best if used by” date passes, but not after the “use by” date.

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