The U.S. Food and Drug Administration designates a sell date (sometimes called “pull date”) as the last day that the manufacturer recommends that a product remain on sale. It is typically used on perishable items, such as meat, milk, and bread. It takes into account additional time for storage and use at home. So, there are several days left after the sell-by date before a food is no longer edible.
Of course, the trick here is knowing how much time you have after the sell-by date before the product should be thrown away. That varies from product to product based on an arbitrary “normal home storage” time, but in general is about one week after the sell-by date. Fresh beef and pork keep no more than about three to five days, while poultry, seafood, and ground or chopped meat should be used within two days of the sell date, unless stored in the freezer. Even though these foods are safe to eat after the sell-date, it still is better to select foods with the latest date available to ensure optimal freshness. Of course, you also should use a little common sense; throw out milk that smells sour or meat that looks old.
In contrast, a product past its “expiration” or “use by” date, which typically appears on yogurt, eggs, and other items that require refrigeration, is no longer of adequate quality and should not be purchased or eaten. Terms such as “expires” or “use by” on items such as baker’s yeast or refrigerator dough indicates how long the food can be expected to retain its rising ability. Other phrases, such as “Best before” or “Best if used by” tell you how long the food will retain its best flavor or quality. You’ll see these terms on foods such as baked goods, snack items, some canned foods, and cereals. The food is safe to eat after this date, but may taste stale or have changed in taste or texture. Surprisingly, there are no federal agencies or laws to regulate the use of dates on food packaging. Existing regulations vary from state to state.
One last note. Don’t assume frozen or canned foods will last forever. Frozen foods, such as vegetables, fruits, or meat, even when stored at the appropriate temperature begin to lose their quality and nutritional value within four months, while canned items should be used within nine months to a year of purchase. Of course, some highly-processed goodies seem to have an eternal shelf life, but then their ingredients barely resemble food to begin with!