Rotting, Shelf life, Food, Sell by, What does best if used by mean?

In my house, I’m notorious for throwing out items when the use-by date reads expired. And, I’m usually in trouble for doing such. Personally, I’ve always erred on the side of caution. My wife, on the other hand, believes it’s important to do a quick sensory test. She wants to smell, touch, even have a quick taste. Seven years later, I’m still unsettled by her “it looks or tastes good to me” approach. With that being said, she’s never been sick from her method and has helped less food go to waste.

So what do these stamps on our food really mean?

Best if Used By/Best Before

This is an indication of when a product/will be at its best regarding flavor/quality/sensory attributes. The best if used by is the time frame you would most likely want to eat the product before it begins to decline and or will not contain the ideal organoleptic characteristics according to the manufacturer/producer. This date is not a “safety date” as in this date is set in reference to product quality, not product safety. The product may be safe to eat outside this time frame. But will have diminished flavor and quality. Overall this type of label is more of a suggestion to the consumer for the best time frame to consume the product.


This is an indication of how long the product should be on a store shelf. From a manufacturer/producers perspective, the sell-by is to help retail locations keep up with inventory ensuring a fresh product is on the shelf. The date should be on product quality and to help identify a specific time frame to dispose of or to have taken back by the manufacturer. Safety is not a part of this date, and the actual shelf life of the product usually is markedly longer than this date to ensure that the product sensory qualities at a high level. This date is beneficial as consumers may keep the product at their home for a while before consumption.


This is the date by which the product should be consumed or used. Use-By is the last day that it is recommended for a consumer to eat the product according to the manufacturer. Ingesting the product after this date doesn’t ensure that you will get sick, but product quality typically declines rapidly after this date, posing a potential risk. Regardless of potential health risks, generally speaking, sensory attributes will be adversely affected after this date is past and it is often not advisable to consume the product after this point.

Looking to learn more about food quality or safety, visit our shelf life page