"Best-by" Dates

  • Many people are confused by the labels on food sold in grocery stores, which read
    • Sell-by
    • Use-by
    • Best-before
Many consumers read an item's sell-by date as an indicator of when the food will spoil, which is an inaccurate assumption.  Consumers are concerned about food-borne illnesses and freshness, becoming preoccupied with sourcing and safety. 

Manufacturers use sell-by dates to help retailers manage their inventory.  It encourages stores to sell a product within a specific time frame, so that the item still has a shelf life once it is purchased.  

Expiration dates lead us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food. 

Phrases like sell-by, use by, and best before are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and lead to a false confidence in food safety.  They are simply producer estimates of how long the food will be at peak quality. 

Researchers also blame an incoherent jumble of state and federal regulations and guidelines for unclear expiration date labels.  The Food and Drug Administration leaves the determination of such dates up to manufacturers.  (Source:  Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic, Use-by dates confuse shoppers, by Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2013) 
  • New Labels are coming.  To keep consumers safe and cut down on food waste, the Grocery Manufactures Association and the Food Marketing Institute are trading 10 commonly used phrases that indicate freshness and replacing them with just 2:  "Best if used by" and "Use by." 

    • "Best if used by" will indicate that the product is at peak quality until the date indicated.  After that, it may not taste as good or perform as well, but it will still be safe to use.

    • "Use by" is the closest to "eat this after this date, plan to be home sick tomorrow."  It will indicate that the product should be thrown out if it is not consumed by that date. 

About 40% of the U.S. food supply is thrown out each year, in part because of consumers who discard products by the date shown, rather than if the food or beverage is actually spoiled - and often, it is not.  As Rose Eveleth wrote for Smithsonian.com, "these dates are - essentially - made up.  Nobody regulates how long milk or cheese or bread stays good, so companies can essentially print whatever date they want on their products."  How long the product stays on supermarket shelves differs not only by state, but also by city. 

The most reliable way of discerning if a food or beverage is safe to consume is to examine it carefully and trust your instincts.  "Our bodies are well equipped to detect when food is spoiled.  The food will taste funny or smell bad, or look slimy.  In most cases, the worse thing that can happen if you eat spoiled food is a passing stomach ache. 
Most widely publicized cases of food-related illness come from food that has been contaminated, not food that is old, said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

This industry-wide, collaborative initiative will
provide consistency, simplify consumers' lives and reduce food waste in homes across America.  The two trade groups hope to have widespread compliance by 2018, but many food manufacturers will begin making the change immediately. 
(Source:  "Food labels to drop sell-by dates in favor of use-by dates," by Jennifer Graham, Deseret News, March 19, 2017) 


Statistics
  • 90% of Americans prematurely discard edibles, because they have misinterpreted the dates stamped on food products. 

  • Americans throw out as much as 40% of the country's food supply each year, adding up to $165 billion in losses. 

  • Food waste makes up the largest portion of solid trash in landfills.  Some $900 million of expired food is dumped from the supply chain annually, much as a result of confusion. 

  • Misinterpreted date labels cause the average American household of 4 to lose as much as $455 a year on squandered food. 
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