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Explaining the date labels on food

A "best when used by" label from a

A "best when used by" label from a cereal box Credit: Newsday / Ann Silverberg

Do you know what the mysterious date labels stamped on food packages mean? The confusion is compounded in New York -- one of the few states that don't require dates on most foods -- although most national brands have dates on products sold in the state. The Institute for Food Safety and Health passes along these explanations:

SELL BY This is aimed at store owners with guidance on when to pull the product from shelves. The institute says "one-third of a product's shelf-life remains" after the sell-by date.

BEST BY A general suggestion from the manufacturer to the consumer. "Best by" means the product, for instance cereal or canned foods that don't spoil, may not taste as good after the date but will still be safe.

USE BY Take this one seriously. While the product won't necessarily be unsafe after this date, the quality will not be as good.

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