The truth about sell by dates

You may think this date is the last day the food is safe to eat. You would be wrong. But you wouldn’t be alone in jumping to that wrong conclusion, because the system behind food label dates is an absolute mess.

There is no national standard for how those dates should be defined or how they should be described. Instead, there is a patchwork system – a mess of state laws, best practices and general guidelines.

“It’s 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’re being told to throw food out, or that even when they don’t make that choice, they’re breaking some kind of rule,” she said.

For food manufacturers, sell-by dates are actually more about brand protection 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 use-by date, is the company’s estimate of when a food item will taste best, its best-before date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it’s at its peak, because that will increase their satisfaction, [and] encourage them to buy it again,” he said.

The main consequence of this ambiguous labeling? Waste of food. A lot of it.

“Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates … is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of food waste at home,” the Food and Drug Administration wrote in a 2019 post.
Wasted food often ends up in landfills, making it a major contributor to climate change. By some estimates, food loss and waste account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Food waste also means wasted money, which many consumers cannot afford, especially now that food prices are rising. And the food that it’s thrown away is diverted from food banks, where it is desperately needed.

Making sense of dates

Although many companies put dates in their products, infant formula is the only food required to contain dates in the United States, said Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Companies choose dates based on when they think an item tastes best. But FSIS has its own safety recommendations. According to the agency, many canned goods can stay on shelves for one to five years. whether properly stored. Under the right conditions, packages of dry rice and pasta can last about two years. The FDA provides food storage tips and guidelines on its website.

But the rules are extremely different for many things that break.

While consuming shelf-stable items past a “best if used by” date is likely to be fine, fresh meat and poultry can also go bad. forward the date on the label. This is because store fridges tend to be colder than our home fridges, Carothers explained.

Once consumers get their meat and poultry home, they should follow home storage rules, she said. FSIS advises people to cook or freeze certain meats within two days of getting them home from the store.

How we got here

Manufacturers began printing sales 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 the codes were incomprehensible to customers.

In the 1970s, food shoppers demanded more information about the quality of food on supermarket shelves. Under pressure from activists, including the distribution of pamphlets deciphering the sales codes, food manufacturers began putting dates on their labels.

At first, this “open dating” tactic seemed to be working.

In February of 1973, the New York Times published an article titled “Meetings Found to Satisfy Customers and Reduce Waste.” The piece cited a study conducted by the USDA and the Consumer Research Institute, a group supported by food manufacturers, which concluded that open meetings had cut in half the number of consumer complaints about buying stale food or broken.
Food manufacturers began sharing sell-by dates with consumers about 50 years ago.

But by the end of the decade, those examining the system were less convinced of its merits.

A 1979 study by the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment noted that open meetings may not have been the right way to extinguish consumer fear.

“There is little evidence to support or refute the claim that there is a direct link between open dating and actual food freshness,” the study found.

There is no way to “accurately determine the dates for different products, there is no consensus on the type of date or dates … to use for which product, or even which products to date at all, and there are no real guidelines how to display the date”, write the authors of the report.

Decades later, we’re still in the same boat. “There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open meetings in the United States,” according to the USDA’s current guidelines.
The FDA said that manufacturers cannot put false or misleading information on labels, but that “they are not required to obtain agency approval for the voluntary quality-based date labels they use or to specify how they arrived at the date they applied.” Carothers, of FSIS, reiterated that the dates can be applied as long as they do not mislead customers and comply with service labeling regulations.

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.

British retailer Morrisons said earlier this year it was removing “sell by” dates from some of its branded milk, moving to “best before” dates and encouraging customers to decide whether to throw away the product based on its appearance and smell.

Morrisons offered this guidance to consumers: if it looks curdled or smells sour, remove it. If it looks and smells good, you can still consume it after the date.

Morrisons said this year it is eliminating dates from its branded milk in some markets.

“When food rots beyond the point where we would want to eat it, our defenses work very well,” ReFed’s Gunders said. “If the food doesn’t look good, if it doesn’t smell good, if it doesn’t taste good, if it’s messy … then absolutely, we shouldn’t eat that food.”

In general, Gunders recommended that those concerned about food safety remain strict about consuming food before its sell-by date if it has a “higher potential to carry listeria.” A way to identify those items? They are the foods pregnant women are told to stay away from, she said.

Another way to prevent confusion, experts say, is to adjust the language used to describe these dates.

“Best of” vs. “Used by”

The Food Date Labeling Act of 2021, introduced last December, wants manufacturers to use “use by” or “best by” just before dates on labels. The bill is the latest in a series of legislative efforts to create a national labeling standard.

Here’s the logic: Companies that decide to put a date on labels must make it clear to consumers whether the item is potentially unsafe after that. date, or if it just has a bit of flavor. If it’s a security issue, they should use “use by”. When it comes to food quality, “best if used” is the way to go.

Manufacturers and agencies such as the FDA and USDA emphasize harmonization of this labeling 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.” In an email, the company explained that the dates “are a guide.” Dole, who has dates in its packaged salads, also uses the “best if used” label.

Even if the bill becomes law and all companies make the same changes, one piece of the puzzle will still be missing: Notifying consumers of the change and what it means.

After all, consumers receiving an item today won’t necessarily know that “use by” is different from “best if used” or that any of these are different from something like “enjoy by” or “sold by” from”. ”

To make the dates clearer to the public, there needs to be a “continuous and engaged effort to help consumers think about it,” FMI’s Harig said. “I think it’s going to take some work to figure it out.”

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