According to the USDA, the labels are suggestions for quality, not safety, and you should go by other indicators to determine if the food is usable.

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You just got home after a grueling work day and rush hour traffic, and you’ve been thinking about that chili recipe all day. You fire up the stove to heat up a little olive oil and garlic, and swing open the fridge to grab the ground beef, only to see that the date on the “sell by” label has passed by a day or two.

Filled with dread, you open the package to inspect. Is it still good? Should you toss it? Smells fine, feels fine, but looks slightly questionable. Is this delicious recipe worth the risk?

The data is in: You’re fine.

According to the USDA, the labels are suggestions for quality, not safety, and you should go by other indicators to determine if the food is usable. A bruised apple is still sweet. A slightly brownish piece of pork is only oxidized, not inedible. 

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The reason the “sell by” labels and “use by” dates are so vague is not just to sell more food; it’s because it really is perplexing to guess when exactly bacteria in food becomes harmful. However, the pathogen party doesn’t start until a considerable amount of time has passed after the Best By date. The labels exist as a guide through the food’s journey to the grocery store shelf, from animal to farmer to processing plant to storage to another processing plant to the grocery store.

This confusion has led to an estimated 30% of food getting tossed out at the retail and consumer level. In an attempt to crack down on food waste, the USDA updated its regulations. They now encourage companies to put “best if used by” on their products instead of the more subjective “sell by.”

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So if that ground beef is past its “sell by” date, but is only somewhat brown, smells normal and isn’t at all slimy – save your money and the environment and toss it in that hot pan. But pay attention to the “best if used by” date and always go with your gut.