The Difference Between Use-By, Sell-By, And Best-By Dates Explained

If you've ever wondered what the different dates on packaged food items mean, look no further. While "use-by," "sell-by," and "best-by" dates are often used interchangeably, they actually have different meanings.

As it turns out, these labels are not expiration dates, but rather suggestions from food manufacturers that indicate when products are at their highest quality, according to The Spruce Eats. For instance, the sell-by date refers to the last day a food product should be displayed for sale. This lets retailers know when to remove the item from the shelves. The best-by label, on the other hand, indicates the last date a prepackaged food item is recommended for consumption. This doesn't necessarily mean that the item is spoiled after this date. It simply refers to the last date the product is at its most flavorful.

Generally speaking, it's safe to eat food anywhere up to a week after its best-by date. Furthermore, the use-by label indicates the last day a refrigerated food item should be eaten. This is a little more strict than the best-by label because it is used on refrigerated foods, which tend to perish much more quickly and easily than canned goods.

How to know when your food has expired

Although the use-by, sell-by, and best-by dates labels are not expiration dates, they can still give you a pretty good idea of when a food item is no longer fresh or safe to eat. If you're trying to avoid food waste, however, it's important to know how long certain foods are safe to eat after these dates (via Eating Well). For instance, you can continue to store and eat food a few days after its sell-by date — although the exact number of days varies depending on the type of food.

Poultry can last one to two days past its sell-by date, while beef can last anywhere between three and five days. If you're unsure if your food has expired, you can always do the smell test. Spoiled food tends to look and smell bad. If your food is emitting a rancid or foul odor, it's best to throw it out.