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You’re at the grocery store, looking at that container of yogurt. It says “Use by” tomorrow. Should you buy it?

Agencies like the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work to make sure that the foods you’re buying at the grocery store are safe for you and your family to eat. Just think – it’s easier to avoid food poisoning than to deal with it after the fact, right?

But, in everyday language, what do you really need to know about that expiration date stamp?

“It is confusing because there is no standardization in packaging dates,” says food safety expert Catherine Strohbehn, PhD, RD, adjunct associate professor of hotel, restaurant and institution management at Iowa State University in Ames.

Translating Common Label Wording

Sell By. Did you know that the “Sell by” date is actually more for your grocery store’s use than for yours? This said, there are some basic info you can still take advantage of by paying attention to that date:

  • Use refrigerated products within the next day after a sell-by date
  • Frozen goods can be stored in your freezer for up to three months
  • If a food product only has a “sell by” date, cook or freeze the item as soon as possible

Use by. “Use by” or “Best if used by” dates provide a general idea about food safety. Some foods can actually be used after the “use by” date, depending on how it’s stored.

For example, canned goods that are stored in a cool, dark pantry will last longer than canned foods stored in a more humid environment. Similarly,  frozen foods stored in a freezer will last longer if the freezer is not opened often, which can cause temperature changes in the freezer, which, in turn, may affect food quality.

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