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Sell-By; Use-By; Best If Used By

One of the more common questions we get here at the Deli usually comes in the form of a phone call. It goes something like this, “I bought (name of product) a few days ago, is it still good?” My answer is almost always the same answer we use in our Kitchen—when in doubt, throw it out. Most of the various sell-by, use-by, or best-if-used-by dates on your food are really just educated guesses because they don’t (and can’t) take into account what happens to the food once it leaves the store—Is it cooked immediately? Is it frozen? Do you store it out on the deck in the sun? To add to the confusion, many states don’t require a date, or don’t require a date on items (like deli food) that is served into an individual container, or require use-by dates on most hard or semi-soft cheeses. To try and clear up what all these dates really mean, I turned to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. On their website, I found an article that I thought really clarified the situation for me, and I got permission to use it as long as I say, “Reproduced with permission from the State of Wisconsin.” So, here it is in its entirety, and I hope you find it useful:

“If you are baffled by ‘sell-by’ and ‘use-by’ dates stamped on food products, don’t feel alone. These statements are confusing to many consumers.

“Food safety expert Mike Barnett says manufacturers date food packages to tell consumers how long food items remain at their highest quality and by what dates consumers should purchase products. Products purchased at the peak of quality are less likely to harbor significant amounts of food-borne, disease-causing bacteria and spoilage.

“Here is a run-down of what those statements mean:


“Try to purchase products before the “sell-by” date expires and use as soon as possible. Products that carry this date are often perishable foods that require refrigeration like fresh meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs, and fresh vegetables. Hamburger, for example, must be used within one to two days after purchase. Ground meat should be thrown out after two days because it spoils rapidly and bacterial levels rise to harmful levels after 48 hours. You can store fresh meats for several months if you freeze them before the “sell-by” date.


“Manufacturers set dates for each product based on scientific testing results. Barnett says that most dry and canned foods will remain safe to eat after the “use-by” date, although quality will decline slowly. Refrigerated fresh foods deteriorate rapidly and must be used by the “use-by” date.

Best if used by (or before)

“Try to use products before this date, or freeze if possible before the date expires. Many foods remain safe after the “best if used by” date, though quality declines over time. For example, milk stored in the refrigerator at 40 degrees F or less should remain safe to drink even after the “best if used by” date, as long as it has no off flavors or odors.

“Barnett says that with proper handling and storage, food products will remain fresh and wholesome at least until the date stamped on the product. Many foods will remain safe to eat beyond the package date if frozen or refrigerated.

“‘Again though, just as a word of caution, consumers should use highly perishable products like fresh meat, poultry and seafood before any date on the package,’ Barnett says. ‘If you have any concerns about the safety, quality or freshness of food, either do not purchase it or discard it.’”

“For more information, check out the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade andConsumer Protection Web site, accessible from”