If you head out to the grocery store like any other day you’re likely to see that different products in your cart have different dates printed on the bags. This isn’t new. But where it gets confusing is that different labels on different products say different things. “Sell by”… “Use By”… “Expires by”… Is there a difference between all these different labels? The short answer is yes, there is. However, the different wording indicates whether or not the date is driven by quality or safety. Here’s how it works.
Many of the dates printed on perishable items are quality dates, meaning that the product is “guaranteed fresh” until a certain time. And that’s all it is, guaranteed fresh. It doesn’t mean that you’ll become ill by consuming it after that date and, in fact, doesn’t denote safety at all. Bakery items are a great example of this. It will taste better by, say, December 12, but if you eat it on December 20 it won’t hurt you. It just isn’t guaranteed to taste as good as it would’ve otherwise.
A “sell by” date is a reference for grocers, not necessarily grocery store shoppers. It’s a message from the food manufacturer to the grocer that says after this date, take it off the shelf. Again, this is a quality issue, not a safety hazard. Bread typically has a “sell by” date so after that day passes, grocers restock with fresh products.
There are also products that are not labeled with writing but merely just a date. Milk and cheese fall into this category and these products can actually hurt you if consumed past that date. However, products that can harm you typically have obvious color changes and begin to develop and odor. It’s easy to smell rancid milk and see moldy cheese before you even attempt to consume either. And those are the ones that are unsafe.
Any food item that is perishable can be “dated”. It’s not required by law but is generally used to inspire consumer confidence in manufacturer’s products. Without these dates, who knows how long that peanut butter has been on the shelf? And while they’re not set in stone, the dates serve as a great indicator of how long it’s been since your food has been manufactured.