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Dana Gunders’s Blog

"Use-By" Dates: a Myth that Needs Busting

Dana Gunders

Posted November 11, 2011

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Here’s a superbly-kept secret:  You know all those dates you see on food products—sell by, use by, best before? Those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and generally speaking, they’re not regulated.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 2011-11-11_09-55-15_968.jpgI couldn’t believe it either, but a quick look at USDA’s food labeling site confirms that the only product for which “use-by” dates are federally regulated is infant formula.  Beyond that, some states regulate dates for some products, but generally “use-by” and “best-by” dates are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. 

Suggestions.  For peak quality.  That’s all. 

If this is news to you, you’re not alone.  Research on date labeling in the UK by the organization WRAP shows that 45-49% of consumers misunderstand the meaning of the date labels, resulting in an enormous amount of prematurely discarded food.  In fact, WRAP estimates that a full 20% of food waste is linked to date labeling confusion.  Of course, that also means 20% more sales for manufacturers recommending those dates.  After all, if your milk goes bad, you don’t stop drinking milk, you just go to the store and buy some more.

“Sell-by” dates are equally problematic.  The goal of sell-by dates is to help stores stock and shelve their goods.  Sell-by dates are designed to indicate a product is still fresh enough for a consumer to take it home and keep in their fridge for days or weeks.  Most stores discard products as soon as they’re past their sell-by dates.  It’s understandable.  Many consumers would balk at buying something with an expired date, especially since they may not understand the date’s meaning. 

But the cost of this waste is significant.  In American Wasteland, a book that examines the massive quantities of food we waste from farm to fork, an industry expert estimates grocery stores discard $2,300 worth of “out-of-date” food goods each day.  Even worse, the waste continues at home since many consumers also misinterpret this date and discard products with weeks of good shelf life remaining. And all that adds up to a huge amount of wasted resources, with serious impacts to our land, air and water, as I discussed here.

The good news is that there’s a pretty straightforward solution to all this confusion and waste around “sell-by” dates: it’s a system called “closed dating”, which uses a code to communicate information on product freshness to stores for stocking and shelving purposes without confusing consumers in the process.

As for the “use-by” and “best-by” sisters, there are two routes the system could take to reduce confusion and waste.  Government could regulate dates more closely so that they serve as genuine indicators of food safety, as consumers already believe.  But since the government can’t predict when you’ll accidentally leave your milk in a warm car for an hour, this can get tricky. 

The alternative would be to eliminate the confusing array of dates completely and for consumers to once again rely on the wisdom of their senses to determine if food is edible.  If that milk smells rotten, by all means throw it away.  But if it smells like good milk and tastes like good milk, it makes little sense to pour it down the drain because the manufacturer has suggested to you that it’s bad.   In fact, when’s the last time you heard of someone actually drinking and getting sick from bad milk?

There are of course options in between—government regulation of some items and no dates on others, no regulation but increased education around the current system, and of course simply teaching people about safe food. 

Once you’re over the shock of not having to throw out that perfectly good yogurt, let me know, what do you think?

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George PeridasNov 11 2011 04:05 PM

Dana, illuminating - thanks. We've all routinely gotten more mileage out of eggs, milk and many other things than what the label would suggest! What happens to all the discarded food from stores though? Does it see get used as animal feed? Does it get composted? Or does it just get landfilled?

Dana GundersNov 11 2011 08:21 PM

Great question, George, and of course complicated to answer. Some does get donated, but one food rescue organization estimated that only 10 percent of the available edible food is recovered from stores. Much of the rest does go to landfills. Hard to believe, I know. I'll explore this further in a future blog.

George KentNov 12 2011 03:25 PM

Dana Gunder’s blog points out that there are many myths about “Use-By” dates on food products. She said the only product for which such dates are federally regulated is infant formula. However, there really is not much regulation relating to use-by dates for infant formula.

The U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does require that a “use by” or expiration date must be indicated on each container of infant formula. The Food and Drug administration does recommend that infant formula past the “use by” date should not be sold. However, this is just a recommendation. There is no federal law that says it may not be sold.

In most states of the United States there is no law against selling outdated infant formula. In California and New York, Attorneys General found a number of stores selling outdated infant formula and other baby foods. In 2009 the Consumer Federation of California sponsored a bill that would have prohibited such sales, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

The requirement for placing a “best before” or “use by” date on infant formula might lead some people to believe that there is a control system in place. However, in most places there are no regulations to prevent misuse of outdated or defective infant formula. There are few laws against selling outdated formula. There are no specifications as to what must be done with outdated or recalled formula. There is no systematic tracking of the disposition of outdated or recalled infant formula.

This comes from my book on Regulating Infant Formula, due out soon from Hale Publishing.

Aloha, George Kent

Bob SmithNov 13 2011 12:35 AM

The lining and sealant on cans is BPA, never do tomato anything out of a can, the acidity of the tomato,etc. imparts more BPA to the food.

Brenda SNov 13 2011 02:00 AM

Of course, if you really want to know food is fresh - shop local, and only buy the amount of food you need... keep to that shopping list, plan your meals. I buy one week's worth of a food at a time (for two adults). Most of us pretty much know what we're going to use on a typical week - milk, bread, eggs, cereal, vegetables and x-amount of meat, and maybe some ice cream, chips or other treats. If you are consuming the food you buy within a week, chances are pretty good you're not going to have much of anything go bad. And it's been my experience that the greens I buy from the farmer's market - from a farm just 15 miles from here - lasts well beyond what I buy at the big grocery store - same goes for fruit, which if you buy in season means it's not being shipped from Argentina. I am also told that food shares and food banks are getting less quantities of food from grocery stores because they are in fact doing a better job of predicting what they need and wasting less.

Scot McClureNov 13 2011 02:24 AM

Actually useful dates on food would be great.
I have seen a lot of food tossed by stores, still good. But then again old mac & cheese could break your tooth. lol

Stores should do a better job of inventory levels and stocking. but they should donate as much as possible. would probably require a waiver from liability of donated food. lol

Shannon Nov 13 2011 03:46 AM

Our food bank accepts canned food up to a year over the "use by" date.

Bonnie RNov 13 2011 05:39 PM

I'm an innkeeper of a small guest cabin which I keep very well stocked. "Use-by dates" frustrate me because a jar of jam, or travel-size container of aspirin might sit in the cool cabin for months, unopened, and pass their dates while still being perfectly good. But guests won't use these items then. And I may refill small containers with new product that gets used up regularly, but the date on the container belies what I know to be fresh stuff. This dating of products does "force" people into buying (and wasting) more and more. It's just a mind game, and consumers lose (more than they are protected, I believe).

Jean Bevanmarquez Nov 14 2011 01:11 PM

My grocer sells stalemated goods for serious reductions...I buy regularly and rarely get bad food!

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