You might think that date is the absolute last day that food is safe to eat. You’d be wrong. But you wouldn’t be alone in coming to that mistaken conclusion, because the system behind food label dates is an absolute mess.
There’s no national standard for how those dates should be determined, or how they must be described. Instead, there’s a patchwork system — a hodgepodge of state laws, best practices and general guidelines.
“It is a complete Wild West,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit trying to end food waste. And yet, “many consumers really believe that they are being told to throw the food out, or that even when they don’t make that choice, that they’re sort of breaking some rule,” she said.
For food makers, sell-by dates actually are more about protecting the brand than safety concerns, explained Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax and trade at FMI, a food industry association.
The sell-by date, often referred to as the expiration date, is the company’s estimate of when a food item will taste best, its optimal date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it’s at its peak, because that’s going to increase their enjoyment, [and] encourage them to buy it again,” he said.
The main consequence of this unclear labeling? Food waste. Lots of it.
Making sense of dates
Though many companies put dates on their products, baby formula is the only food that is required to have use-by dates in the United States, said Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
But the rules are wildly different for many perishables.
While consuming shelf-stable items after a “best if used by date,” is likely fine, fresh meat and poultry could go bad even before the date on the label. That’s because store refrigerators tend to be colder than our home fridges, explained Carothers.
How we got here
Manufacturers began printing sell-by information on products in the early 20th century. At first, the date was written in code: Retail employees had to match each code to a date using a key, but to customers the codes were incomprehensible.
At first, this “open dating” tactic appeared to be working.
But by the end of the decade, those examining the system were less convinced of its merits.
“There is little evidence to support or to negate the contention that there is a direct relationship between open shelf-life dating and the actual freshness of food,” the study found.
There’s no way to “accurately determine dates for various products, no consensus on which type of date or dates … to use for which product, or even which products to date at all, and no real guidelines as to how to display the date,” the report’s authors wrote.
Where we go next: The sniff test
To avoid food waste, some advocates encourage people to rely on their senses when determining whether certain foods are safe to eat.
Morrisons offered these guidelines to consumers: if it looks curdled or smells sour, ditch it. If it looks and smells okay, you can consume it even after the date.
“When food is decayed past the point where we’d want to eat it, our defenses work very well,” said ReFed’s Gunders. “If food doesn’t look good, if it doesn’t smell good, if it doesn’t taste good, if it’s slimy … then absolutely, we should not eat that food.”
Another way to prevent confusion, experts say, is to regulate the language used to describe these dates.
“Best by” versus “Use by”
Here’s the logic: Companies that decide to put a date on labels have to make clear to consumers whether the item is potentially unsafe after that date, or if it just tastes a little off. If it’s a safety issue, they have to use “use by.” If it’s about food quality, “best if used by” is the way to go.
Gunders and agencies like the FDA and USDA point to this label harmonization as a good solution. Many companies have already made the transition.
Del Monte, which sells canned fruits and vegetables among other products, uses “best if used by.” In an email, the company explained that the dates “are a guideline.” Dole, which has dates on its packaged salads, also uses the “best if used by” label.
Even if the bill becomes law and all companies make the same changes, there will still be a missing piece of the puzzle: Alerting consumers to the shift and what it means.
After all, consumers who pick up an item today won’t necessarily know that “use by” is distinct from “best if used by,” or if either of those are different from something like “enjoy by,” or “sell by.”
To make the dates clearer to the public, there needs to be a “consistent and engaged effort to help consumers think through this,” said FMI’s Harig. “I think it’s going to take some work to figure it out.”