Though almost every food item you buy at the supermarket has some sort of expiration date — under the headers of “Sell By,” “Use By,” “Use Before,” “Best Before,” among others — printed on the packaging, the truth is date labels are largely voluntary and determined by the food producers. If handled properly, most foods are perfectly safe to eat after whatever date is on the label, but stores and consumers throw away an inordinate amount of food every year simply because that date has passed. In an effort to reduce food waste, the federal government is hoping to encourage meat and dairy producers to all use the same phrase: “Best If Used By.”
This afternoon, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued new guidance on labeling for the foods regulated by the agency [PDF], and making the case for the “Best If Used By” phrasing.
“Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown,” explains the guidance. “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best if Used By’ date.”
Other date-related phrases are not as clear to retailers or consumers, notes the FSIS. “Sell By” says nothing of food safety or quality; it’s merely an indicator of how long the manufacturer thinks a store should keep an item available for sale. Then there’s “Use By,” which is intended to imply that this is the last date on which a product will be at its peak freshness, but which may be misinterpreted as an indication that a product is not safe after that date.
The FSIS says “Use By” should be reserved for infant formula — the one food for which the USDA does have a date-labeling requirement — where the date is indeed intended to be an indicator of the product’s safety.
The ultimate goal, notes the FSIS guidance, is to try to curb food waste. The USDA claims that around 30% of the U.S. food supply is lost or thrown out at the retail and customer level each year.
While the guidance doesn’t put a number on how much of that discarded food is safe to eat, a 2014 study out of Harvard found that 90% of Americans had thrown out food at some point based solely on the date stamped on the packaging.
The USDA guidance is only a recommendation, and even then the USDA’s regulatory oversight is generally limited to fresh produce, meat, and dairy products. The larger bulk of packaged foods falls under the Food and Drug Administration’s umbrella.
Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, hopes that a shift toward “Best If Used By” would keep safe food out of the garbage bins.
“USDA is rallying the industry around one commonsense label so consumers will know that food is still safe to eat even past the printed date,” says Gunders. “This will not only mean less wasted food, but also less wasted water, climate pollution and money. The FDA should follow suit on the food it oversees so all products will have the same easy-to-follow date labels.”
Last May, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act, which would have eventually established a single nationwide standard for date labeling, and distinguished between a date that indicates a product’s quality and one that indicates the food may no longer be safe to eat. However, both the Senate and House versions of the bill have been stalled in their respective committees and show no sign of life going forward.
Of course, since date labeling is largely self-regulated by the industry, there’s nothing really stopping the various food-producing trade groups from agreeing to go with “Best If Used By” without being pushed by the federal government.