The Truth About Manufacturer Sell-By Dates

6 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

Many people are afraid of becoming sick if they eat something that has passed its sell-by date. However, the sell-by date is only a guideline. Start a search today to learn about sell-by dates, and never see your perishable items the same way again!

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding sell-by dates. For a start, not many people actually know what a sell-by date is. The sell-by date is the date marked on a perishable product which indicates the recommended date by which it should be sold.

What’s the difference between a sell-by date, best before date, and use by date?

Although many people use these terms interchangeably depending on where they’re from, these terms were intended to mean three pretty different things.

The sell-by date is the date given by manufacturers to supermarkets to tell them when to sell the product by.

The best before date is a recommendation to consumers of when to eat the product for optimal freshness.

The use by date is placed on food to warn consumers that the manufacturers don’t feel it’s safe to eat their food after this date.

When did sell-by dates start being used?

Sell-by dates started appearing on food items in the United States in the 1970s. This is because in the last 50 years there had been a major shift from local farms providing most of the nation’s food to it coming into American homes from producers all around the world. People still wanted information about how it was made, so the sell-by date was created to inform people when a product would be at its optimal freshness.

Why do so many people follow these sell-by dates so religiously?

Many people adhere strictly to the sell-by dates on perishable items because they are afraid of getting sick. Food-borne illnesses have claimed the lives of many people throughout history, and even now, with food safety technology at the absolute peak, people are still afraid of getting sick from their food.

The deadliest food-borne illness outbreak is still in many people’s recent memory — around 50 people died from eating listeria-contaminated cheese in California in 1985. This is only one of a handful of major outbreaks that has happened in the USA in the last 50 years.

What bacteria can make you sick?

Listeria, E.coli, salmonella and botulism are the deadliest bacteria that can be present in food. All of these bacteria produce toxins that can cause serious damage to a human body. Symptoms of infection vary between each different case, but can be fatal if not treated immediately.

The 1985 outbreak of listeria in California was only one of many serious contaminations that has happened over the last century. Listeria poisoning (this time from improperly handled cold cuts) killed around 20 people in 1998, and infected cantaloupes killed 30 people in 2011.

Is there a connection between manufacturer sell-by dates and bacteria contamination?

Many people believe that they will be made sick by one of these terrible bacteria if they drink milk or eat meat that is even one day past the sell-by date. While these horrible outbreaks still resonate strongly in people’s minds, the truth is that improper handling of food by farmers and factory workers caused these outbreaks. The sell-by dates are an entirely separate issue.

What happens if you eat food past the sell-by date?

Most of the time, if you eat food that has passed the sell-by date but still looks fine, nothing will happen to you. Of course, you should use your best judgement if you choose to do this, and make use of all of your senses.

Does the food smell the same as it did a few days earlier? Does it look the same, with no mold growing on it? If you feel that the food is still good to eat, give it a try. Most of the time, if someone gets sick from eating expired foods, they will get simple food poisoning — a mild to moderate stomach ailment that usually passes within a day – not a bacterial infection.

Just watch out for mold

Food mold is a fungus that develops from spores in the air that land on food, creating a fuzzy coating that signals that the food is definitely past its expiry date. While most mold is harmless, some types of mold contain mycotoxins which, if ingested, can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea.

Who made up these sell-by dates?

The sell-by dates are made up by manufacturers as a guideline for both consumers and retailers. For consumers, it tells us when to eat something by to ensure optimal freshness. For retailers, it tells them when they should stock it, and when they should take it off the shelves.

These dates are strictly a guideline — there are many factors to take into account when it comes to food safety, including temperature, storage, and handling. The sell-by dates primarily exist to protect corporations from lawsuits. That way, if you get sick after eating their food and sue them, they have built in protection if you ate the food after their recommended sell-by date.

Sell-by dates aren’t required on all perishable items

There are only a few things that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires sell-by dates on. Infant formula and baby food are the only things in the USA that are actually required to have a sell-by date — anything else is solely a recommendation, and is placed there by the company primarily to protect their own interests.

Laws vary on a state-by-state basis

The variety of terms used to indicate food freshness, plus the fact that each state has their own laws about whether food can be sold after the sell-by date contributes to millions of pounds of food waste per year in the USA alone.

Although it seems inconceivable, many states actually don’t regulate whether food can be sold after the sell-by date. Then, even if they do regulate it, many times there are only restrictions placed on dairy and meat products. Finally, there are nine states that still have zero regulations on the books regarding sell-by dates.

What foods are usually good after their sell-by date?

Many times, your food is still good after the sell-by date — you just need to give it a quick look over and sniff to find out.

Most of the time, it is eggs and milk that are the quickest to get tossed if they’ve even gone one day past the sell-by date, which is easy to understand, because many people are afraid of getting ill, and these two foods can spoil quickly. Luckily, it’s quite easy to tell if these foods are spoiled, so you don’t actually have to rely on the sell-by date to tell you if they’re still edible.

With milk, it’s easy to smell if it’s gone bad — it will smell sour, and have a sharp, unpleasant odor. With eggs, simply fill up a large bowl with water, and place the them inside. An egg that is still good will sink to the bottom, but an egg that has expired will float on the surface. Generally, the way an item looks, feels, and smells will tell you whether it’s still good to eat.

What foods are not safe to eat after their sell-by date?

Deli meat, which has been heavily processed, is not generally safe to eat after the sell-by date because it has passed through so many hands. Certain kinds of fresh produce like berries, mixed greens, and sprouts should also be tossed immediately after they expire because their warm, damp growing conditions tend to also promote the growth of bacteria.

What can I do with food that is about to expire?

The most obvious answer is use it up, and quickly! Sometimes throwing something in the freezer will buy you some more time, and you can build up a really great cache of smoothie materials by keeping different kinds of frozen fruits and vegetables on hand for quick and healthy breakfasts. If you have eggs, milk or dairy about to expire, think about using them in a quick bread recipe, or making a delicious sauce that will keep in the fridge for another few days.

Jordana Weiss