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 America. We 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.