Confused about best before dates? You’re not alone

You might think that this date is the absolute last day that food is safe to eat. You are wrong. But you wouldn’t be the only one coming to this wrong conclusion, because the system behind the dates on the food labels is an absolute mess.

There is no national standard for how this data should be determined or how it must be described. Instead, there is a patchwork system – a hodgepodge of state laws, best practices and general guidelines.

“It’s a complete Wild West,” said Dana Gunders, chief executive of ReFed, a nonprofit that tries to end food waste. And yet “a lot of consumers really believe that they’re being told to throw out the food, or that even if 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, said Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax and trade at FMI, a food industry association.

The sell-by date, often referred to as the sell-by date, is the company’s estimate of when a food will taste best, its optimum date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it’s at its peak because that will increase their enjoyment, [and] encourage them to buy it again,” he said.

Confused about what the dates on food labels mean?  You're not alone.

The main consequence of this unclear labeling? food waste. Lots of it.

“Consumer uncertainty about the importance of dates is thought to contribute to about 20 percent of household food waste,” the Food and Drug Administration wrote in a 2019 post.
Wasted food often ends up in landfills and thus contributes significantly to climate change. According to some estimates, food losses and waste account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Wasting food also means wasting money, which many consumers cannot afford, especially now that food prices are soaring. And eat that is Discarded items are diverted from panels where they are urgently needed.

understand dates

Although many companies date their products, baby formula is the only food that is required to have an expiration date 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 security recommendations. According to the agency, many canned goods can last anywhere from one to five years on shelves. if properly stored. In the right conditions, packets of rice and dried noodles can last about two years. The FDA offers food storage tips and guidelines on its website.

But the rules are completely different for many perishable goods.

While eating non-perishable items past a best-before date is probably okay, fresh meat and poultry could actually go bad before the date on the label. That’s because fridges tend to be colder than our domestic fridges. explained Carothers.

Once consumers take home meat and poultry, they should follow home storage rules, she said. The FSIS instructs people to cook or freeze some meats within two days of bringing them home from the store.

How we got here

Manufacturers began printing best-before date information on products in the early 20th century. First, the date was written in encrypted form: retail workers had to match each code with a key to a date, but the codes were incomprehensible to customers.

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

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

In February 1973, The New York Times ran an article headlined “Meal Dating Will Please Customers and Reduce Losses.” The article cited a study by the USDA and the Consumer Research Institute, a group supported by food manufacturers, which concluded that open dating has halved the number of consumer complaints about buying stale or spoiled food.
Food manufacturers started communicating expiration dates to consumers about 50 years ago.

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

A 1979 study by the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment found that open dating might not have been the way to suppress consumer fears.

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

There is no way to pinpoint dates for different products, no consensus on what type of date or dates… to use for which product, or even what products to date at all, and no real guidelines on how the date should be displayed should,” the authors of the report write.

Decades later, we’re still in the same boat. “There are no consistent or universally accepted descriptors used on food labels for open dating in the United States,” according to the USDA current guidance.
The FDA said manufacturers are not allowed to place false or misleading information on labels, but that “they are not required to seek regulatory approval of the voluntary quality-based date labels they use or state how they arrived at the date they are.” have applied. FSIS’ Carothers reiterated that data can be used as long as it doesn’t mislead customers and complies with the service’s labeling regulations.

Where we’re going 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 “use by” dates from some of its branded milks, switching to “best before dates” instead and encouraging customers to decide whether to discard the product based on its appearance and smell.

Morrisons offered consumers these guidelines: If it looks curdled or smells sour, leave it out. If it looks and smells good, you can also consume it after the date.

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

“When food has deteriorated past the point where we want to eat it, our defenses work really 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 we definitely shouldn’t be eating that food.”

In general, Gunders recommended that those concerned about food safety be very vigilant about consuming foods before the expiration date when they have “a higher potential for transmitting Listeria.” Any way to identify these items? They’re the foods pregnant women should stay away from, she said.

Another way to avoid confusion, according to experts, is to regulate the language used to describe this data.

“Best before” versus “Use by”

The Food Date Labeling Act of 2021, introduced last December, wants manufacturers to use “use by” or “best before” only 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 choose to put a date on labels need to make it clear to consumers if the item may be unsafe afterwards date, or if it tastes just a little. If it’s a security issue, they must use Use By. When it comes to food quality, “best if used by” is the way to go.

Gunders and authorities like the FDA and USDA point out that this label harmonization is a good solution. Many companies have already made the switch.

Del Monte, which sells canned fruit and vegetables, among other things, uses “best if used by”. In an email, the company explained that the data “is a guideline”. Dole that 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, one piece of the puzzle will still be missing: making consumers aware of the transition and its importance.

After all, consumers picking up an item today may not necessarily know that “use by” is different from “best to use by” or that either is different from something like “enjoy by” or “sell by”. differs. ”

Making the data clearer to the public requires “a consistent and dedicated effort to help consumers think through it,” said FMI’s Harig. “I think it’s going to take some work to figure it out.”

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