Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Unnecessary Food Waste

Opinion

This originally appeared on Switchboard, the staff blog for the Natural Resources Defense Council, on Sept. 18.

Here’s a surprising little secret: You know all those dates you see on food products — sell by, use by, best before? Those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and, generally speaking, they’re not regulated.

If this is news to 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 date label to mean that their food is unsafe. And 25 percent of them do so every time.

In the U.K., they’ve estimated about 20 percent of food wasted in households is due to confusion over expiration dates. If this same estimate were true here, it would mean that the average household of four could be spending $275-450 on food that ends up being discarded even though it’s perfectly fine, just because they misinterpret the label date.

In partnership with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, we are releasing a new report called The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in AmericaWe took a deep dive into the intricacies of U.S. date labeling laws in order to figure out what is behind those dates on food. And, 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 rationale, objective system behind the 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 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 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 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 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.

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Go into your favorite grocery store and peruse the milk section and its dates. You could also check out the 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 dates – all within the same Trader Joe’s brand. In fact, even a half-gallon and a quart of the same fat-free milk had different dates.

Seriously? How are these things supposed to mean anything? When there’s that much variation, they don’t. And yet, somehow, we all operate on the premise that those dates know better than we do whether our food is still good to eat.

The main thing to understand is that foodborne 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.

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 photos@fixfooddates.com, tweeting it to @NRDCFood, or posting it on our Facebook page. In return, we’ll make sure to send you information to help you figure out whether that product may still have some life left.

From the United Kingdom to the European Union, 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 expiration dates as one of the key “low-hanging fruit” opportunities for reducing food waste. Let’s turn that opportunity into action.

© Food Safety News
  • Mike

    Do we really need government oversight for spoilage too? I think not. A lot of work on expiration dates are done by the research and development of each producer. There is a fine line between trying to find a date between with an acceptable shelf-life (i.e. profitable) and a change in quality after it sits on the shelf, which would effect the perception of the producer by the consumer.
    And certainly expiration dates can changes from lot to lot (which, you should explain, that when you state “even a half-gallon and a quart of the same fat-free milk had different dates”, that it doesn’t make sense unless “same fat-free milk” means from the same lot number, which you didn’t mention).
    Keep in mind that these perishable items already have to wait a day or two, or more, for microbiological sampling prior to shipping the products out (the important food safety part). The date is just a reminder that responsibility is passed onto the consumer after these dates. It’s really a common sense issue for consumers (along with peace of mind), not a government one.

  • Brian Noone

    The attached diagram of how to properly stock your refigerator is promoting cross-contamination, the one thing that can lead to a food borne illness no matter what temperature that the refrigerator is maintained at.

  • Russell La Claire

    Yet another assumption knocked down.

  • Mark

    UK has tried to distinguish between Use By and Best Before as per this link, http://www.food.gov.uk/about-us/about-the-fsa/faqsconsumer/bestbeforeuseby – of course a lot depends on how well this is communicated to the customers.

  • CRS

    Problem is some expiration dates are meaningful. Cold cuts, for example. Even with preservatives a few bacteria can be present. The older the cold cuts are, the higher the bacterial titer becomes. And the problem with bacterial contamination is that, unlike mold, you can’t detect it with your senses. The food item will not “look, smell, or taste spoiled” Fresh meat just doesn’t last. Some stores redate the meat, even more reason to be conservative. I’d rather waste a food item than make my family sick. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • http://www.survivingurbancrisis.com/ Silas Longshot

      Fresh food obviously is one thing, but canned foods are a completely different issue as far as ‘shelf life’. Nobody expects a raw steak to last 18 months past a ‘sell by’ date. If the can isn’t rusty, dented or bulging out like it may explode, the food may still be edible. Home canned veggies, properly done, will last 5 years.
      surviving urban crisis . com

  • EndGroceryWaste

    The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, growers, retailers and the struggling families in today’s tough economy. We should address the waste
    problem in every link in our food supply chain.
    As an example, the excess inventory of perishable food items close to their expiration causes
    waste.
    There is a new GS1 DataBar global standard that enables an automatic incentive offering application for fresh food close to their expiration. This application encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue and makes fresh food
    affordable for all families while effectively reducing the global carbon footprint. I encourage food retailers to look into the GS1 Databar emerging standard.

    An example of an application (based on GS1 databar standard) that could help us winning a battle in the food waste war is illustrated at EndGroceryWaste.com, I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

    Rod Averbuch,

    Rod@EndGroceryWaste:disqus .com

    Chicago, IL