Have you ever pulled something out of the fridge only to see that it expired a week ago? Or did it? A 2017 Food and Drug Administration survey of U.S. consumers found that less than half could determine the difference between the terms “Sell By,” “Use By” and “Best If Used By.” To end the confusion, some industry regulators are urging producers to standardize the meaning of these terms.
Candice Choi is a reporter for the Associated Press covering food health and policy. She says there’s no official distinction between the three common expiration terms. In fact, the terms mostly pertain to the quality of the food instead of the safety.
“The problem is that, these dates, there’s no real exact science to these dates or guarantees to these dates,” Choi says. “They’re kinda just guidelines in most cases.”
The FDA now recommends producers use the phrase “Best If Used By” to indicate the time frame when the product has the highest quality, not whether it’s safe to consume. But standardizing that phrase could conflict with some state regulations.
“For milk … they might require language like ‘Sell By,’ and that is because milk might be more perishable and might have more issues with spoilage than something like crackers,” Choi says.
So how should consumers determine the safety of their food? Choi says the old “nose test” may still work.
Ultimately, Choi says the FDA is trying to clarify, for consumers, the difference between food-safety terminology and words that describe food quality.
“I think what the FDA is saying, and what companies are saying, is they’re trying to ease concerns about safety by saying these dates are not really necessarily about safety,” Choi says. “They’re really about quality issues.”
Written by Chloe Bennett.