Written by Shannon Kenny, GW Visiting Scholar
Ever confused by the myriad of date labels at your local grocery store? Look around and you’ll see foods displaying “sell by” dates, while others are marked with “use by”, “best before”, “fresh until”, “enjoy by”, “expires on”, or “packed on” dates; some simply show a date with no descriptor. What do all of these dates really mean?
According to a recent Harvard study, the majority of foods are safe and wholesome past the dates marked on the labels. Many date labels were designed to note when stores should display an item or when a product will be at “peak quality”; most are not meant to tell you when a food will become “unsafe” or spoil. However, many consumers simply toss food past its label date, not wanting to risk potential food poisoning (“If in doubt, throw it out!”). And most stores pull items approaching their label dates from the shelves altogether. Together these behaviors are a leading cause of unnecessary food waste.
A new, simpler labeling system could prevent up to 20% of avoidable household food waste each year, according to research in the United Kingdom – that’s more than five billion pounds of food we could save here in the United States every year. And standardizing date labels is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce food waste.
Many companies in the US are taking an important first step right now. Last January, a group of food manufacturers and retailers announced a new voluntary effort to streamline and standardize food date labels by summer 2018. Under this program, participating manufacturers will label their products with one of only two labels – “USE by” for foods with possible safety concerns or “BEST if used by” for foods that can safely be consumed past the label date. Walmart adopted this system for its private label products in 2016, and the European Union has a similar system.
Consumers should not eat foods past their “USE by” dates. But consumers may safely eat foods past their “BEST if used by” dates. These dates indicate “peak quality” for products (as determined by the manufacturer). After this date, they say products may taste a little stale or lose a little of the vitamin content, for example, but safety isn’t a factor.
This two-label approach will enhance food safety by focusing our attention on items that may actually present safety risks, such as deli meat and refrigerated prepared meals. It will also reduce food waste by allowing us to feel safe eating that can of soup found in the back of our cabinet or the milk that’s been hanging out in our fridge, even if it is after the label date.
But two obstacles are stalling progress on the new labeling system.
A quick survey of my local grocery stores reveals much work remains to be done. Most all of the milk showed “sell by” dates rather than one of the new labels, and many products around the store, such as cereal, marshmallows, and jam, showed dates with no descriptive words at all. And there were “Best by” dates on products, like rice and water, which likely do not degrade with time. What’s thwarting efforts to switch to the new labels?
First, some state and local laws require manufacturers to display specific labels. Forty-one states (and some localities) currently regulate food date labels. In some cases, companies cannot display the new simpler labels due to these regulations. For example, many states require “sell by” dates to be prominently displayed on dairy products, eggs, and shellfish, while the new initiative asks for “USE by” or “BEST if used by” labels on these same products. If manufacturers use both, it may further confuse consumers.
Many states also prohibit the sale or donation of foods past its label date, regardless of whether the date indicates a safety concern. This leads to additional unnecessary food waste.
Second, the effort is strictly voluntary, so some companies may choose not to participate. For the initiative to work, all food companies need to participate. A national policy, like the one proposed in the Food Recovery Act of 2017, could require all companies to adopt the two-label system and preempt state laws that stand in the way. Currently the federal government provides only “guidelines” for date labels on most foods; these guidelines are consistent with the industry effort but compliance is not mandatory.
Once these hurdles are cleared, educating consumers will be key to success. Recent surveys confirm widespread consumer confusion about the meaning of date labels. Designing an effective campaign to help consumers understand the new date labels is essential. Currently over one-third of consumers “always” discard food close to or past its date and over 80% do it “at least occasionally”. The education campaign could also help consumers maximize the shelf-life of their purchases through proper storage at home, which is often more predictive of safety than a label date.
Consistency and transparency from manufacturers will also be important. Under the current initiative, manufacturers will continue to choose whether to display a date label on a product, which of the two approved phrases to use (“USE by” or “BEST if used by”), and which date to pick. Each choice is important to food safety and food waste, so decision-making criteria should be transparent and consistent. For example, research shows consumers are more likely to throw out food past a “USE by” date than a “BEST if used by” date – and this message will be reinforced through the education campaign. Unnecessarily labeling something with a “USE by” label will likely lead to unnecessary waste.
So, how can you help right now? Commit to eating foods that are still safe rather than discarding them. You can also help while shopping by choosing foods that will be fresh when you consume them, rather than simply choosing the package with the later date. If you plan to consume the food right away, consider buying foods near their expiration dates.