The REAL meaning and purpose of expiration dates on food
By Mary Miller // Dec 21, 2018

Food date labels are often a death sentence for the food item in question. They judge the food items with the words "best before," "use by," "sell by," and so on. The numbers written on the tag are an ever-present warning that their time is limited. Little by little, they slowly count down the food's lifespan to their execution date. Once the date passes the one written on the tag, the food item is often deemed unworthy for consumption and is then only destined for the garbage can. However, this scenario is based on a false perception that these dates always mean "expiration dates." The difference becomes all the more important when SHTF. If you are a prepper planning to stock up your survival pantry for long-term storage, you can prevent unnecessary food spoilage by learning about the true meaning and purpose of date labels on food items. (h/t to


Not all food labels mean the same thing. Most date labels on food items are meant to indicate quality rather than safety. This means that normally, the food should still be safe enough to eat. It just won't taste the best, and its flavor and quality will only decline over time, but it will still be edible. (Related: Use by, best by, expires after: How to know if your food is still safe to eat.)

Best if used by

This label has nothing to do the shelf life of the food item. It generally has the same meaning as "best by" or "best before" labels. Companies use it as a safety net to indicate how long the quality of the product will last, not necessarily how long the product itself will last. This is simply meant to mark the period when the food item is at its best or greatest quality. Certain food products, such as cheese and sour cream, will still be perfectly edible long after the "best by date" has passed. In fact, mild cheeses will only sharpen with age when stored in the right conditions.

Use by

Immediately after the "best before" date comes the "use by" date. This label is not a safety date and is simply the last recommended date to use the item while it is still at its peak quality or flavor. After this date passes, the food will only grow staler over time. It is only meant to indicate the safety if a product when it is used on infant formula.

Sell by

This label is aimed at retailers, not at the consumers. It tells the retailers how long the food item should be displayed and when it should be sold or removed from shelf life. Past the "sell by" date, most food products will still have a third of their shelf life remaining. It meant for inventory purposes, not safety.

Guaranteed fresh

You can often come across this label in places where the food is made and prepared on the day itself, such as most bakeries. It is still usually safe to eat food that is past this date. However, it is still important to use your best judgment and check for mold, bad smells, or any other signs of spoilage.

Expires after

You can find this label on most food products, pharmaceuticals, and other perishable items. This label is mandatory, but it does not necessarily indicate the actual date of expiration. There is usually some leeway in between the date printed and the actual expiration date. You can consider it a final warning for the consumer to have one last chance of using the item before it goes bad completely.

If you want to learn more tips on storing food in case SHTF, you can read more articles by going to

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