Here’s a surprisingly little secret about the sell by, use by and best before by dates you see on food products. Those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and generally speaking, they’re not regulated. Here’s what you need to know and importantly, how you can help us at NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic clear up the confusion.
The ‘Sell-by’, ‘Use By’, ‘Best Before’ Date Issue
If this is news for you, you’re not alone. In fact, according to one industry study, 90 percent of Americans at least occasionally throw food away prematurely because they mistakenly interpret the sell by (or use by) date to mean their food is unsafe; 25 percent do so every time. In the UK, they’ve estimated about 20 percent of food wasted in households is due to confusion over sell by dates. If this same estimate were true here in the U.S. , it would mean the average household of four could be spending $275-450 on discarding food that is perfectly fine, just because they misinterpret the label date.
New Report on Food Expiration Dates
In partnership with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, my organization, the NRDC released a report called The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America. We took a deep dive into the intricacies of the sell by and use by date labeling laws in the U.S. After all that, I can tell you this: The U.S. food dating system is not a system at all. It’s a mess. And that mess is leading to a whole lot of perfectly good food going to waste.
While to most people it seems that there is a rational objective system behind the sell by and use by dates we see on our food, it’s really more like the Wild West. Take orange juice, for instance. In most states, there are no laws requiring that orange juice needs to have a date stamped on it. It is then up to the manufacturer to figure the whole thing out on their own, and there is a whole series of decisions they might go through, such as:
- Should the product have a sell by or use by date displayed at all? Their retail customers might demand this of them, otherwise it’s up to them.
- Which words to use? Will it be “use by” or “best before ”or even “sell by?” Up to them.
- What does the date convey? Is it that the taste might change a little, or perhaps the color, or do they just want you to see it as a fresh product even if it will last quite a while longer? There’s no definition, so in fact, a range of factors can feed into this decision.
- How is the sell by or use by date calculated? They might use lab tests, do consumer taste tests, look at literature values, or just sales data. Anything goes here.
You might think that there is similarity in the sell by and use by dates at least across orange juice brands, so that when you’re looking at two containers of orange juice, the dates are comparable, right? Nope. Not the case.
Try This Experiment with Sell-By Dates Yourself
Go into your favorite grocery store and peruse the milk section and its dates (or OJ, I just happened to do it with milk not all that long ago). At Trader Joe’s, I found milk with no words, different words, and different types of sell by or use by dates, all within the same Trader Joe’s brand. In fact, even the half-gallon and quart of the same fat free milk had different dates.
Seriously? How are these things supposed to mean anything? The problem is that when there’s that much variation, they don’t. And yet somehow, we all operate on the premise that those sell by or use by dates know better than we do whether our food is still good to eat.
The Truth About Food Expiration: Handle Food Safely
The main thing to understand is that food-borne illness comes from contamination, not spoilage. A pathogen has to be on your food to begin with in order for you to get sick, and it has to grow to levels that will make you sick. Handling your food safely is more important than its age. In fact, when interviewed on this topic, the president of the Institute of Food Technologists told NPR, “In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue.”
So as consumers, the most important thing we can do is handle our food safely. Both business and government can be partners in this by providing education, but also by helping to make our food dating system more intelligible. We need a reliable, coherent, and uniform system of date labels that actually communicates what the dates are trying to convey.
How You Can Help Us Fix Food Expiration Date Confusion
You can learn more about the changes we recommend at www.fixfooddates.com, and even find a neat infographic demystifying those little levers on your fridge drawers. You can also help us collect examples of confusing dates by sending a photo of one that has perplexed you (along with a description of the product) to email@example.com, tweeting it to @NRDCFood, or posting it on our Facebook page. In return, we’ll make sure to help you figure out whether that product may still have some life left.
From the United Kingdom, to the European Union and the United Nations, and even NRDC in last year’s food waste report – every entity that has investigated food waste has highlighted reducing confusion around food expiration dates as one of the key ‘low hanging fruit’ opportunities for reducing food waste. Let’s turn that opportunity into action.
Weigh in: What other ideas do you have for clearing up the confusion?
Adapted from “It’s Not a Food Dating System, It’s a Mess”, September 18, 2013
Want to learn more about the food dating system? Watch below for Dana Gunders’ speech on expiration dates at the Northern California Recycling Association.