Confusing Sell-By Dates Lead to Trashed Food

By ecoRI News staff

All those dates on food products, such as sell by, use by and best before, have little to do with food safety. These expiration dates are arbitrarily set by manufacturers to help grocery stores rotate stock, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and they are not regulated in the way many people believe.

The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety, according to the NRDC. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it’s unsafe to eat.

These labels are often so inscrutable and differ so widely from state to state that they’re essentially worthless as information. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an entire webpage devoted to trying to make sense of all these random dates.

U.S. consumers and businesses needlessly trash billions of pounds of food annually as a result of these expiration date labeling practices. About 40 percent of the food we produce in this country never gets eaten. Much of it is perfectly edible food — worth some $165 billion annually — that gets tossed in the trash, and the misinterpretation of date labels is one of the key factors contributing to this waste, according to a NRDC study.

Confusion over dates, according to a 2013 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. Since regulators, industry officials and consumers have become accustomed to seeing date labels on many food products, policymakers haven’t asked important questions about this confusing labeling system.

A recent report by NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic examined the historical impetus for placing dates on food — namely a desire to indicate a product’s freshness — and the ways in which the system has failed to meet this goal.

The main shortcomings with the date labeling system, according to the report, are:

The lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state and local variability in date labeling rules, has led to a proliferation of diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices. Inconsistencies exists on multiple levels, including whether manufacturers affix a date label in the first place, how they choose which label phrase to apply, varying meanings for the same phrase, and the wide range of methods by which the date on a product is determined. The result is that consumers can’t rely on the dates on food to consistently have the same meaning.

This convoluted system isn’t achieving what date labeling was historically designed to do — provide indicators of freshness. Instead, the current system creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety.

This confusion also leads to considerable amounts of avoidable food waste as the mistaken belief that past-date foods are categorically unsuitable for consumption causes consumers to discard food prematurely.

Date labeling practices hinder food recovery and redistribution efforts by making the handling of past-date foods administratively and legally complex.

In order to better communicate with consumers, the report recommended the following changes:

Make sell-by dates invisible to the consumer. They generate confusion and offer consumers no useful guidance. Products should only display dates that are useful to the consumer.

Establish a reliable, coherent and uniform consumer-facing dating system that features clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels; promotes the use of freeze-by dates on perishable food products to help raise consumer awareness of the benefits of freezing foods and the abundance of food products that can be successfully frozen in order to extend shelf life; ensures date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages; and employs more transparent methods for selecting dates.

To view an informational graphic, click here.