What date stamps on groceries really mean

Is that packaged meat still okay to eat?

Is that packaged meat still okay to eat?  (iStock)

I used to be one of those people who panicked when I saw that the date stamped on my yogurt, milk, or eggs had passed. I was blind to whether it said "sell by" or "use by": if the date had passed it went straight to the trash, no questions asked. It turns out I probably wasted a whole lot of money and ingredients by doing that.

Most of these dates are concerned with the peak freshness of a product, not the date a product is spoiled or inedible. According to the USDA, this is what those labels really mean:

Sell By

This label is an indicator for retailers: stores should sell the product by this date in order to ensure it will be fresh for customers. Think of it as the last date the item will be at its highest level of freshness; in other words, the item will still be edible after that date.

Retailers will put items with a later "sell by" date behind items that have a quickly approaching date so that customers will grab the older product first. Don't hesitate to dig to the back of the shelf for your gallon of milk, as it will likely be fresher.

Best if Used By

If you see this label, it's really just another indicator of freshness. The quality may have gone down after the stamped date, but the product is by no means inedible after the date. Don't toss it in the trash just yet.

See more tips about grocery store stamps.

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