New Legislation Tries To Clear Up Confusion Over “Sell By,” “Best By” & Other Expiration Dates

Image courtesy of Timothy J Silverman

Stroll around your favorite supermarket and you’ll see a cornucopia of deadlines stamped and printed on your food. That carton of milk says “Sell By,” the box of mac and cheese says “Best Before,” and the jar of horseradish has a “Use By,” none of which are official or necessarily an indicator of safety or quality, resulting in millions of pounds of food being wasted every year based on sometimes arbitrary dates. New legislation coming this week in both the House and Senate hopes to clear up the confusion over the many expiration date labels you find on food.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree from Maine are expected to announce their respective bills on Wednesday morning, setting down a path to establish a national standard for date labels.

A 2014 Harvard study found that 90% of Americans have discarded food simply because of the date stamped on the packaging, even though the food is often perfectly safe.

It’s not just consumers that are unnecessarily throwing out food based on these dates. Nearly half the states have laws restricting or outlawing the sale of foods after these dates have passed.

At the same time, some expiration dates are indeed a reflection of that food’s safety. However, the lack of a standardized use for this information means that consumers may be eating unsafe food because they have no faith in the labels.

Food producers also have the burden of dealing with different labeling compliance requirements for each of the 41 states that mandate this information.

The Blumenthal and Pingree legislation is hoping to both establish a single nationwide standard for labeling, and distinguish between a date that indicates a product’s quality and one that indicates the food may no longer be safe to eat.

For example, most cookies don’t pose a threat to your safety if eaten months after they’re sold (though you might chip a tooth), so a date label on a pack of snickerdoodles is generally intended to indicate when you the product will begin to decline in quality.

Under the new bill, these cookies would not require a date label, but if the manufacturer chose to employ one, it would be stamped with a “best if used by” date. According to Walmart, this is the phrase that customers most associate with being an indicator of quality.

Twenty states restrict the sale of food past the date stamped on the label, even if that date is purely a quality reference. The proposed law would override those rules with regard to foods where the date is only an indicator of quality.

Truly perishable foods — dairy, meat, eggs — that do pose a health threat if consumed after a certain date would get the more explicit “expires on” date label.

In an effort to make sure this date isn’t arbitrary, the bill directs the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to identify those ready-to-eat foods with a risk of microbial contamination if not consumed after a certain date.

States would be allowed to continue barring the sale of past-date food if it bears the “expires on” date label.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.