Food date labels indicate quality, not safety

In All, General by Keri Szejda

Perhaps your family is a bit like mine when it comes to decisions about the date labels on food. Everybody seems to have a different opinion about what to do with food once the “sell by” date has passed.

If you open up the fridge and notice a a past date label on a carton of milk, what do you do? Do you automatically dump the milk down the drain? Skip pouring a glass, but maybe go ahead and use it to make some pancakes? Give it a sniff test and dive in?

It turns out lots of folks are reasonably confused about the meaning of food product date labels. The Harvard Food Policy and Law Clinic reports that 90% of consumers misinterpret the date label as an expiration date – and consequently throw away perfectly safe food.

Milk waste isn’t an isolated issue. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 31% of the entire U.S. food supply is wasted at the retail and consumer level. And date labels are a major contributor to this problem. As it turns out, date labels are really just quality indicators – and don’t have a thing to do with safety. And up until now, these labels haven’t been subject to federal guidance.

In 2013, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, a platform for sharing best practices in reducing food waste. Then in 2015, the agencies set a 50% food waste reduction goal by 2030. “Let’s feed people, not landfills,” said Gina McCarthy in a joint USDA/EPA 2015 statement. Achieving just a 15% reduction would “provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions”.

Currently, manufactures use a variety of phrases to indicate quality, such as “sell by,” “best-by,” “use by,” and best if used by”. But research indicates that most of these phrases can lead to consumer confusion, as consumers often think the labels “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” really mean “unsafe after”.

This week, the USDA announced new date labeling guidance aimed at reducing food waste. The guidelines encourage food manufacturers to adopt the phrase, “best if used by,” because consumers more readily interpret this phrase as a quality, rather than safety, indicator. The government is accepting comments on the revised labeling guidance from USDA for 60 days.

If you have concerns about food safety, don’t rely on the date label. Instead, check out the federal Food Safety website for information on how to avoid food borne illness.

Decisions around food policy isn’t often clear-cut, and even the best decisions can result in significant tradeoffs. But providing uniform guidance on date labels is a relatively simple fix. It’s a small change with big benefits. Just a bit of wordsmithing should save consumers and manufactures money, reduce food insecurity, and preserve more of our environmental resources.