when you walk into a Supermarket and pick up an item, anything from milk to cereal to a can of beans: You’ll likely see a small date on the package preceded by “enjoy by,” “sell by,” or a similar phrase.
You might think that date is the absolute last day that food is safe to eat. You would be wrong. But you wouldn’t be alone in coming to that erroneous conclusion, because the system behind food label dates is an unmitigated mess.
There is no national standard for how those dates should be determined or how they should be described. Instead, there is a patchwork system: a hodgepodge state laws, best practices, and general guidelines.
“It’s a complete wild west,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit that tries to end food waste. And yet, “a lot of consumers actually believe that they’re being told to throw away food, or that even when they don’t make that decision, they’re breaking some rule,” she said.
For food manufacturers, expiration dates have more to do with brand protection than safety concerns, explained Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax and trade at FMI, a food industry association.
The expiration date, often referred to as the best before date, is the company’s estimate of when a food will taste best, its best date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it’s at its peak, because that will increase their enjoyment, [and] encourage them to buy it again,” he said.
The main consequence of this unclear labeling? Food waste. lots.
“Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates…is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of household food waste,” said the Food and Drug Administration wrote in a 2019 post.
Wasted food often ends up in landfills, making it one of the biggest contributors to climate change. According to some estimates, Food loss and waste account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Wasting food also means wasting money, something many consumers cannot afford, especially now grocery prices skyrocket. and food that it is thrown away is diverted from food banks, where desperately needed.
Although many companies put dates on their products, infant formula is the only food that is required to have expiration dates in the United States, said Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Companies choose dates based on when they think an item tastes best. But FSIS has its own safety recommendations. Many canned goods can last on the shelf for between one and five yearsaccording to the agency, Yes properly stored. Under the right conditions, packets of dry rice and pasta can last about two years. the FDA offers tips for food storage and guidelines on their website.
But the rules are very different for many perishables.
While consuming non-perishable items past an expiration date is probably fine, fresh meat and poultry could even go bad. prior to the date on the label. That’s because store refrigerators tend to be colder than the refrigerators in our homes, Carothers explained.
Once consumers take meat and poultry home, they must follow home storage rules, he said. the FSIS instructs people to cook or freeze some meats within two days of bringing them home from the store.
Manufacturers began printing expiration information on products in the early 20th century. At first, the date was written in code: retail employees had to match each code to a date using a key, but the codes were incomprehensible to customers.
In the 1970s, grocery shoppers were crying out for more information about the quality of food on supermarket shelves. Under activist pressureincluding distributing booklets that cracked expiration codes, food manufacturers began putting dates on their labels.
At first, this “open dating” tactic seemed to be working.
In February 1973, The New York Times published an article entitled “Food dating found to please customers and reduce losses.” The article pointed to a study by the USDA and the Consumer Research Institute, a group backed by food manufacturers, that concluded open dates had cut the number of consumer complaints about buying stale or spoiled food in half. .
But by the end of the decade, those examining the system were less convinced of its merits.
A 1979 study by the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment noted that open dating may not have been the right way to stifle consumer fears.
“There is little evidence to support or deny the claim that there is a direct relationship between the open shelf-life date and the actual freshness of food,” the study found.
There is no way to “accurately determine the dates of various products, there is no consensus on what kind of date(s)… to use for which product, or even which products to date, and no real guidelines on how to display the date.” the report’s authors wrote.
Decades later, we are still in the same boat. “There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States,” according to USDA‘s current orientation.
the FDA said manufacturers they may not place false or misleading information on labels, but that they “are not required to obtain agency approval of quality-based voluntary date labels they use or specify how they arrived at the date they were applied.” FSIS’s Carothers reiterated that dates can be applied as long as they do not mislead customers and comply with the service’s labeling standards.
To prevent food waste, some advocates encourage people to trust their senses when determining whether certain foods are safe to eat.
the british retailer Morrisons said earlier this year that it is removing expiration dates on some of its milk brands, switching instead to expiration dates and encouraging customers to decide whether to dispose of the product based on how it looks and smells.
Morrisons offered these guidelines to consumers: If it looks curdled or smells sour, throw it out. If it looks and smells good, you can consume it even after the date.
“When food spoils beyond the point where we’d like to eat it, our defenses work really well,” ReFed’s Gunders said. “If the food doesn’t look good, if it doesn’t smell good, if it doesn’t taste good, if it’s slimy…then absolutely, we shouldn’t eat that food.”
Overall, Gunders recommended that those who are concerned about food safety remain strict about eating food before the expiration date if it has a “higher potential for carrying listeria.” A way to identify those items? They are the food that pregnant women are told to stay away, he said.
Another way to avoid confusion, experts say, is to regulate the language used to describe these dates.
the Food Date Labeling Act of 2021, introduced in December of last year, wants manufacturers to use “use by” or “best if used by” only before dates on labels. The bill is the latest in a series of legislative efforts to make a national labeling standard.
Here’s the logic: Companies that choose to put a date on labels must make it clear to consumers if the item is potentially unsafe after that. date, or if it just tastes a little bad. If it’s a security issue, they have to use “use before”. When it comes to food quality, “best if used before” is the way to go.
Gunders and agencies such as the FDA and USDA point to this harmonization of labels as a good solution. Many companies have already made the transition.
Del Monte, which sells canned fruits and vegetables among other products, uses “best if used by.” In an email, the company explained that the dates “are indicative.” Dole, who has dates on its packaged salads, it also uses the “best if used by” label.
Even if the bill becomes law and all businesses make the same changes, one piece of the puzzle will still be missing: alerting consumers to the change and what it means.
After all, consumers who pick up an item today won’t necessarily know that “use by” is different from “best if used by”, or if either is different from something like “enjoy by” or “sell by”. prior to”. ”
To make the dates clearer to the public, there needs to be a “constant and committed effort to help consumers think about this,” the IMF’s Harig said. “I think it’s going to take some work to figure it out.”
Leave a Comment