What Does a "best Before" Date Really Mean?


Quick Answer

A “best before” date on food tells consumers how long food will be at its best quality. While dating is not usually required by federal law except for infant formula, when such dates are used, they must include the month and day of the month as well as an explanation such as “best by” adjacent to the date.

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Full Answer

Of the many kinds of dating allowed on foods, the “best by” date is commonly seen on shelf-stable products such as snacks and cereals that have long shelf lives. It’s one way that consumers know how long an item has been on the shelf as well as how long it will remain at top quality.

A “best by” date is different from the open dating (“sell by” dates) used on refrigerated foods such as milk and meat which specify a date after which the store won’t sell the item. In addition to a month and day, “best by” dates for items also display a year for packaged foods with extremely long shelf lives such as dried legumes and canned goods.

A “best by” date is also different from a “use by” date, which tells consumers how long the manufacturer expects the product to maintain acceptable quality. In both cases, food should be safe to eat even after these dates have passed.

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