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What’s the difference between sell by and use by? Food industry to clarify terms

Why it matters to you

We've all been frustrated by confusing sell by, expires on, and best if used by dates. Now, the food industry is hoping to bring some clarity to those confusing labels.

Confused by the “sell by” date on your food? You’re not alone.

And now, two of the biggest names in the food industry are looking to assuage your concerns. On Wednesday, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced the adoption of a new industrywide effort aimed at reducing the number of questions customers have about the safety of their food. In order to do so, a number of grocery manufacturers and retailers have come together to “adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of products.”

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GMA pointed out that more than 10 different date labels are currently used on various food packaging. It’s unclear as to whether “Sell By,” “Use By,” “Expires On,” “Best Before,” or “Best if Used By” all mean the same thing, or have nuanced definitions that could mean the difference between a delicious dinner and a case of food poisoning. As a result, GMA and others in the industry are adopting a voluntary initiative to streamline date labels to just two standard phrases.

“‘Best If Used By’ will describe product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume,” GMA said in a press release. “‘Use By’ applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.”

These changes could impact companies such as Innit, who want to digitize food in order to warn you when food in your fridge is going to spoil. Increased clarity could help inform your decision to use or toss that milk with or without a reminder from your fridge, though.

The hope is that this new nomenclature will begin to be adopted by the majority of food producers by next summer. “Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste,” said Pamela G. Bailey, the president and CEO of GMA.

“The shopper remains the most critical audience in our industry, and as the associations representing major food brands and retailers, we want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO. “While we all need nourishment, both retailers and manufacturers also want consumers to have the best experience possible in their stores and consuming their products.”