National Consumers League

Food

NCL Food Issues

Understanding 'sell by' dates

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Use by date on a plastic tub of sour creamThe amount of food wasted in America is disturbingly high. Around 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is thrown away unused every year due, in part, to confusing food date labeling. More than 90 percent of Americans have thrown out food prior to its actual expiration date. Recently, a push has been made to reduce the amount of food that grocery stores are disposing of by repurposing it in cheap prepared meals or donating it to food banks. At home, consumers can reduce food waste by learning the truth about “use by” date labeling.

According to a Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic study on waste associated with food date labeling, food dating emerged in the 1970s due to consumer demand. Americans were starting to produce less of their own food and purchasing more processed grocery store products, but there were no standards for indicating how long the food products could be safely consumed. Consumers pushed for a uniform, regulated food-dating system.

Unfortunately, food date labeling was never a priority to Congress, which failed to pass federally regulated guidelines indicating an expiration date for various foods. It was decided that food dating wasn’t an issue of public health and thus didn’t need to be federally regulated. Instead, states took this issue into their own hands, providing Americans with a patchwork quilt of laws across the United States that engaged dating terms such as “use by,” “best by,” and “sell by.” Today, food dating regulations exist mainly at the state level, with some at the local level, in 41 states. Baby formula remains the only federally-regulated food dated product because necessary nutrients and potency are lost as time progresses.

Not only are the current regulations confusing and incongruent, but their purpose is overwhelmingly misunderstood and assumed to be an “expiration date.” In reality, the purpose of food date labels is to ensure that products are eaten at their peak quality, not to determine when the product is no longer safe to consume. Therein originates the problem of food waste. It’s actually quite uncommon to get sick from foods that are past their use by/sell by dates, as it is not a measure of food safety but instead a measure of peak freshness. In most cases, smell and sight are good indicators that a food has turned. If you’re still not sure, the Internet has some great resources (like foodsafety.gov), which could aid in the decision-making process.

Both “use by” and “best by” dates are intended for consumer use to specify a time at which the peak freshness of a product begins to deteriorate. These dates say nothing about whether the food is safe to eat or not; they are created by the manufacturer strictly for food quality purposes. “Sell by” dates are a tool for manufacturers and sellers to determine proper turnover of a product. At one time, “sell by” dates were coded so the consumer didn’t know what the label meant, but when the movement for better labeling began in the 1970’s many grocers voluntarily adopted the practice of transparently labeling “sell by” dates because it was what consumers wanted.

Today “sell by” dates can prove to be more confusing than helpful, causing unnecessary food waste as many consumers assume foods past the “sell by” date have gone bad. A need for federally regulated food expiration dates still exists, but, in the meantime, consumers should know that their own senses and some light Internet research might be the best determinant of whether foods are fit to eat or if they really do need to be tossed.