With food waste and ugly food making headlines again in recent weeks, we wanted to give you a reminder of what food date labels actually mean. The key takeaway is that a “best-by” or “sell-by” date is not an expiration date and doesn’t necessarily mean that the safety of the food product declines after that date. All the date labels come from the manufacturer and are aimed at different audiences. BestBy_406x250A “best-by” or “use-by” date is guidance for consumers to get the best experience of the product, says David Fikes, vice president of Consumer/Community Affairs and Communications for the Food Marketing Institute. A “sell-by” date is geared toward the retailer. “While it’s OK for the consumer to see that date, it’s really more for stocking purposes,” he says. You’ll only see an “expiration date” on infant formula because it’s required by law, but not on other foods. “Babies rely on all the nutrients present in the formula,” Fikes says. “They put an expiration date on that to let you know when the nutrients may have diminished to the point where it may not be sustainable for the infant.” Once a food product does pass its “best-by” date, Fikes says “it doesn’t mean it’s diminished or unsafe if you eat it beyond the date,” although the information does carry a little more weight for dairy and deli products. While FMI wouldn’t make a blanket statement that date labels have nothing to do with food safety, they’re more about quality. Fikes, FMI and Cornell University recently worked with the Department of Agriculture to broaden their brochure about keeping food safe into a mobile app called FoodKeeper. It includes storage timelines, cooking tips, and access to USDA’s “Ask Karen” feature. One of the reasons behind FoodKeeper is to help consumers cut down on food waste. Producers are going to hedge their bets a little bit about the date on the product, Fikes says. Once the food leaves the grocery store, they have no say in how it’s stored, so they use a date that takes into account the fact that the food may not be kept at the most optimal conditions. This is why most products are fine beyond their date label. The app is also designed to help consumers get their money’s worth from the foods they buy. “No one wants products going to the landfill,” Fikes says.

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  • Dave Walpuck

    You may also want to discuss why displaying expired food products in a retail supermarket is not only deemed a food safety violation, it can also come with monetary fines?

  • Tami K. Hastings

    Very useful information. I downloaded the app. Thank you!

  • Ollie

    In spite of what the Food Marketing Institute says about defining
    “best-by”, “use-by”, and “sell-by”, the average consumer will consider these
    expiration dates on whatever food these dates are applied. The whole idea of adding these dates was a
    marketing scheme, primarily by grocery chains and the dates applied by
    manufacturers usually don’t reflect anything about food safety or food quality. For instance, on canned products, the date product
    goes into the can is in the code (most of the time unrecognizable) on the can
    and the “use-by” or “best-by” date is stamped on the can at a later date
    usually when the product is labeled.

  • Richard Fluehmann

    The problem is that people don’t have a natural relationship to food any more because they eat outside and rarely buy food.

  • Bluewolf

    “Baby formula”? Now there’s a real winner for you! Who cares when an
    abject fraud “expires”? Actually the sooner the better . . . take this
    vile goo off the shelves entirely. What next, a “use by” date on Gardisil?!