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What does best before really mean

Product dates can be confusing. The expiration date is different from the sell-by date, and both are different from the “use-by” date. Except for infant formula and drugs, there’s not even any kind of law or regulation governing how they’re used.

Sell-by date

This is the store’s note to itself. It wants to sell all its products before the sell-by date, so that they’ll still be good for a few days or weeks afterward. It’s the earliest of all the possible shelf-life dates.

Best-if-used-by date

This is also sometimes called the best-before date. It’s basically the store’s recommendation to you to use that product before that date, so that you’ll get the best flavor or quality. It’s basically the store’s best guess about how long the product’s quality will last.

Use-by date

This is the store’s recommendation to you to use the product before that date, so that you’ll still get decent flavor or quality. It’s basically the store’s best guess about how long the product’s quality will last.

The use-by date is sometimes called an expiration date. Manufacturers try to avoid using that word so that it’s clear that there’s nothing legally binding here.

The difference between use-by date and best-if-used-by date

You can see how the use-by date (expiration date) and the best-if-used-by date are close to being the same thing. Both of them are the manufacturer’s educated guesses about how long product quality will last. Neither of them has any legal weight. They’re a product quality recommendation, not a safety guarantee.

The product could still be perfectly good after either a best-if-used-by date or a use-by date. That’s actually pretty common. But it could also have gone bad before that date.

Use-by date and infant formula

There are proper regulations about having a use-by date on infant formula. This is a product safety date, and it does have legal weight.

This regulation makes sure that the formula has the right amount of nutrients and can pass through a bottle nipple. You don’t want a baby getting accidentally undernourished because of expired formula.

Some places also have food safety laws or regulations for expiration dates on milk and other perishable food products. It’s not a hard and fast thing across the board.

Cans and use-by dates

When you’re dealing with cans, the used-by date isn’t usually about the food in the can. It’s about the can itself. Can seals last a long time, but they don’t last forever.

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