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Where Do Date Labels on Food Come From?

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

Best-By, Sell-By, Best-if-Used-By, Freeze-By. These are not expiration dates; they have nothing to do with food safety. They are occasionally required by local governments but are not required by any federal agency.

According to the FDA and the USDA, these dates indicate peak quality. Food is still wholesome and edible after a printed date. For example, most shelf-stable goods like canned vegetables and pasta are edible indefinitely.

Why do we have date labels?

In the 1950’s Americans began moving further from farms, food was being stored for longer periods of time, and consumers began asking- is my food still good to eat?

Putting readable date labels on food products became a popular solution to this problem beginning in the 1970’s. According to Emily Broad Leib with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, local leaders became frustrated with spoiled milk or moldy bread in stores, so they became active in movements to require dating on certain food products.

Why are these labels confusing?

Date labels are stamped by the manufacturer and are viewed as a quality control measure. Food is still wholesome after the date printed. One of the only exceptions is baby formula, which must have a Use-By date. “Formula must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple. If stored too long, formula can separate and clog the nipple.”[1]

Labels like Packaged On, Freeze Before, Better if Used By, and Pack Date further confuse consumers. The FDA suggests manufacturers use the Best-if-Used-By label since it is the least confusing for consumers.

How do I know if food is safe to eat?

You’ll know if your food is inedible. Emily Broad Leib shares “Take a pause. Look at the food. Smell it, taste it. You would know… Or if you took a tiny sip and the milk tasted bad, it would be apparent.”[2]

Photo of finished pasta dish

Mustard Green Pesto and Pasta

Do you have some pasta that has passed the date printed on the box? What about some greens or herbs that are starting to wilt? Make some Pesto and Pasta!

Pasta is a shelf-stable food and safe to eat indefinitely. Check the pasta for mold or signs that it might not be safe, but if it looks, smells, and feels okay - cook it.


· 1 Box (1 lb) of Pasta

· 2 Cups Mustard Greens

· 1 Cup Basil

· 6 Cloves Garlic

· ½ Cup of Almonds or Walnuts

· ½ Cup Parmesan Cheese

· ½ Cup Olive Oil

· ½ tsp. Salt

· Juice from ½ a Lime (2 Tbsp.)

· ½ tsp. Black Pepper


1. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil.

2. Add pasta, let cook for 8-10 minutes, until soft.

3. In a blender mix Mustard Greens, Basil, Garlic, Almonds or Walnuts, and Parmesan Cheese. Pulse.

4. Add a little olive oil at a time, continuing to pulse.

5. Add in salt, lime juice, and black pepper, pulse one more time.

6. Remove pasta from the burner and strain off the water.

7. Mix the pesto with the pasta and serve.

Storage Tip:

Pesto can be refrigerated for 2-3 days or frozen for up to a month! Store yours for future meals.

Cooked pasta will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days or frozen for up to 8 months.

[1] (Ask USDA, 2019) [2] (Leib, 2022)

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