Why food companies need to expire 'sell by' dates

Why food companies need to expire 'sell by' dates

Milk date image by planet5D LLC via Shutterstock.

Here’s a surprising little 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.

If this is news for you, you’re not alone. In fact, according to one industry study, 90 percent of Americans at least occasionally throw food away prematurely because they mistakenly interpret the date label to mean their food is unsafe; 25 percent do so every time. In the U.K., they've estimated about 20 percent of food wasted in households is due to confusion over expiration dates. If this same estimate were true here, it would mean the average household of four could be spending $275 to $450 on discarding food that is perfectly fine, just because they misinterpret the label date.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in partnership with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, released Wednesday a report called “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” We took a deep dive into the intricacies of date labeling laws in the U.S. in order to figure out what is behind those dates on food. And after all that, I can tell you this: The U.S. food dating system is not a system at all. It’s a mess. And that mess is leading to a whole lot of perfectly good food going to waste.

While to most people it seems that there is a rational, objective system behind the dates we see on our food, it’s really more like the Wild West. Take orange juice, for instance. In most states, no laws require that orange juice needs to have a date stamped on it. It is then up to up to the manufacturers to figure the whole thing out on their own, and they might go through a whole series of decisions, such as:

• Should the product have a date displayed at all? Their retail customers might demand this of them; otherwise it’s up to them.

• Which words to use? Will it be “use by” or “best before” or even “sell by?” Up to them.

• What does the date convey? Is it that the taste might change a little, or perhaps the color, or do they just want you to see it as a fresh product even if it will last quite a while longer? There’s no definition, so in fact, a range of factors can feed into this decision.

• How is the date calculated? They might use lab tests, do consumer taste tests, look at literature values or just sales data. Anything goes here.

You might think that there is similarity in the dates at least across orange juice brands, so that when you’re looking at two containers of orange juice, the dates are comparable, right? Nope. Not the case.

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Go into your favorite grocery store and peruse the milk section and its dates (or OJ; I just happened to do it with milk not all that long ago). At Trader Joe’s, I found milk with no words, different words and different types of dates, all within the same Trader Joe’s brand.

Seriously? How are these things supposed to mean anything? The problem is that when there’s that much variation, they don’t. And yet somehow, we all operate on the premise that those dates know better than we do whether our food is still good to eat. 

The main thing to understand is that foodborne illness comes from contamination, not spoilage. A pathogen has to be on your food to begin with in order for you to get sick, and it has to grow to levels that will make you sick. Handling your food safely is more important than its age. In fact, when interviewed on this topic, the president of the Institute of Food Technologists told NPR, “In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can't think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue."

So as consumers, the most important thing we can do is handle our food safely. Both business and government can be partners in this by providing education, but also by helping to make our food dating system more intelligible. We need a reliable, coherent and uniform system of date labels that actually communicates what the dates are trying to convey.

From the United Kingdom to the European Union and the United Nations, and even NRDC in last year’s food waste report, every entity that has investigated food waste has highlighted reducing confusion around expiration dates as one of the key “low hanging fruit” opportunities for reducing food waste. Let’s turn that opportunity into action.

This article originally appeared on the Natural Resources Defense Council's Switchboard blogMilk date image by planet5D LLC via Shutterstock.