Expiration Dates: Best if Used By, Use By

One of my friends told me that the best day of her life was the day they put expiration dates on milk.

Seems her mother was an early believer in no food waste and would keep everything until it was gone.

Gone in all senses of the word.

But what does “03/06/17” on the top of my milk carton mean?

Best by, use by, sell by, discard by, or it will kill you by?

No idea.

It seems that the date is generally considered to be the “sell by” date and if you’re in Texas, like my friend, it actually says that.


How long is it going to be drinkable?

About 5 days, but it depends.

According to the Dairy Council of California, one of the ways to make it last is to: “Drive straight home from the grocery store”.


Eggs have an expiration date on the side of the box.

Hidden in plain sight.

There may or may not be an expiration date, but there’s always what’s known as a Julian date.

A Julian date is a number from 001 to 365. It represents the day the egg was packed.

My box says 351 or December 7th. 

If I’m doing the math right (not accounting for the fact that 2016 was a leap year).

And the eggs should stay fresh in the fridge for 4-5 weeks after the Julian date.


On my eggs, the printed expiration date was 8 weeks after the Julian date.

Like the sell by date on milk the Julian date seems concrete–it’s the date the eggs were packed.

But, how long between the time the eggs were laid until they were washed and packed?

You can usually count on that being less than a week.

So, in a country where every ingredient is listed and warning signs abound, why do we have such vague freshness labeling?

Last week, a voluntary agreement was reached to reduce ten generally used phrases to just two: “best if used by” and “use by.”

This is supposed to lessen the confusion.


Here’s what it means: “best if used by” is for products that might not taste or function as well beyond the specified date, but were nonetheless safe to consume.

Use by” is for the handful of products that are highly perishable and could pose a health hazard if kept too long.

Got it?

When something is going to go bad, why can’t they have something more specific? “You’ll be sorry on ____”.

Remember, most expiration dates are sell-by dates for convenience of the supermarkets, and not a drop-dead date for you.

In the meantime, (since it may take up to a year for them to reset the type), just rely on your nose and try not to buy more that you’re going to use before it goes bad.







2 thoughts on “Expiration Dates: Best if Used By, Use By”

  1. They really do something to the effect of you’ll be sick by and die after…
    Although my parents have some really questionable items in their fridge and are both in terrific health.

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