Question: I recently went shopping and bought a bag of salad that says “best if used by June 14” on the packaging, a carton of milk that says “sell by June 17,” and a package of eggs that says “use by June 20.” I’m confused by what all these different dates mean.
Answer: Those food label dates are confusing to many people—more than a third of consumers throw away food once the date on the label has passed because they mistakenly think the date is an indicator of food safety, according to a 2017 study by the Harvard University Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
But for most foods, the date label is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality. With only a few exceptions, the majority of food products remain wholesome and safe to eat long past their expiration dates, the study authors said. Infant formula is the only food product that must carry product dating under current federal law.
Confusion regarding food label dates also leads to significant food waste, research has shown.
In fact, some $161 billion worth of food is wasted each year by the food industry and consumers, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA said consumer food waste may often result from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding what the product date labels mean, estimating that that confusion over date labeling accounts for some 20% of consumer food waste.
To help alleviate consumer confusion on food date labels, the FDA said in a letter last week that the federal agency supports the use of “best if used by” as the standard term on food date labels to help reduce food waste and to help consumers better understand what the dates on food packaging means.
The FDA says that this standard language should be used on “packaged-food labeling if the date is simply related to optimal quality—not safety. Studies have shown that this best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.”
What current labels mean
As it stands now, the food label dates that are most often used by the food manufacturing industry have the following meanings, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
“Best if used by/before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
“Sell by” date tells a store how long to display a product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
“Use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except when used on infant formula.
However, the USDA says most food products—excluding infant formula, for example—should still be safe and wholesome after the date passes if they have been handled properly and there is no evidence of spoilage. Spoilage is indicated if the food has an odor or has mold, for example.
Most of the dates on food labels are commonly used to inform consumers and retailers of the date up to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor, the FDA said. The agency also said that date labels are generally not required on packaged foods.
“While manufacturers are prohibited from placing false or misleading information on a label, they are not required to obtain agency approval of the voluntary quality-based date labels they use or specify how they arrived at the date they’ve applied,” the FDA said.
The FDA supports efforts by two major food industry groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, to get their members to use “best if used by/before” on their packaging.
The “best if used by/before” date would be used on nonperishable foods when the product might not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume after the date listed.
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