Are Food Date Labels a Waste of Food and Money?

by Chris Hunt

Published: 9/18/13, Last updated: 5/11/22

I used to fancy myself some sort of rogue, daredevil eater, flaunting food safety recommendations and cheating a certain death by consuming a wide variety of foods well after the expiration dates printed on the packaging. Turns out I’ll have to satisfy my appetite for extreme risk-taking elsewhere (by eating rice, for instance), since food date labels don’t actually indicate the safety of food (or even tell you when it will spoil).

Today, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released an authoritative analysis of US food date labeling. The report, “The Dating Game: How a confusing food date labeling system in the United States leads to food waste,” was produced by lead author Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, with support from Dana Gunders, NRDC’s resident food waste expert, who wrote the definitive white paper on US food waste last year.

The exceptionally comprehensive report can be summarized as follows: the US food date labeling system is terrible. Date labels are very poorly regulated, ill-defined and inconsistently applied. And contrary to popular belief, they don’t actually indicate when food will spoil, or provide any meaningful measure of food safety. This creates undue consumer confusion and results in a significant amount of entirely avoidable food waste — all without increasing consumer safety or improving the overall quality of our food supply.

Food Date Labeling in the US: A Case Study of How Not to Regulate

The report includes a fascinating (and pull-your-hair-out infuriating) history of food date labeling in the US, describing how in the 1970s, when date labeling began to be adopted by food manufacturers on a wide scale, Congress attempted to develop uniform standards for “open code dating” (i.e., labels that include actual dates clearly visible to consumers, as opposed to “closed code dating,” which uses symbols or numerical codes that can only be deciphered by producers and retailers). As early as 1975, the Government Accountability Office warned that failure to develop a national system of open code dating would “add to confusion, because as open dating is used on more products, it would continue letting each manufacturer, retailer, or State choose its own dating system.”

Yet nearly 40 years later, no such system has been developed — in part (get ready to don your indignation hat to inhibit hair pulling), because of early opposition by the National Association of Food Chains, which argued that the food industry was already spending millions on labeling, and that new requirements would increase costs and inhibit adoption of “further voluntary, progressive programs in the future.”

Bottom line, Congress has the ability to regulate date labels, but hasn’t. Technically, FDA and USDA currently have the authority to regulate these labels, but they don’t, really; FDA leaves date labeling to the discretion of manufacturers (with the exception of infant formula, which must bear “use by” dates determined by nutrient concentration), and USDA requires a “pack date” for poultry products (or a lot number in the case of USDA-certified eggs), but doesn’t require date labels for other products (though the agency does impose some technical requirements for displaying dates on USDA-regulated foods {not that these are particularly robust; for instance “packing,” “sell by” and “use before” can be used on labels, but the terms aren’t defined, and can be used interchangeably}).

In the absence of clear federal regulation, individual states have adopted their own date label requirements, which vary wildly. In fact, nine states don’t require date labels on any foods at all; others require labels only for specific foods (most commonly dairy, eggs and shellfish {though rarely all three}). My personal favorite is New Hampshire, which mandates date labeling only for cream and pre-wrapped sandwiches. (Policy wonks can dig into the details in Appendix B of the report, which includes date labeling regulations for all 50 states.) On top of this, local governments can also impose their own labeling requirements (for instance, until 2010, New York City required expiration dates on milk cartons, despite the fact that New York state has no date labeling requirements).

The result of this regulatory fiasco is that food date labeling is inconsistent, poorly defined and, to a great extent, left to the discretion of manufacturers.

Pick a Date Label, Any Date Label

Given the lack of standardization, a number of different food date labels have emerged; the report identifies the following most common labels:

  • “production” or “pack” date — date on which the food was manufactured or placed in final packaging.
  • “sell by” date — used by retailers for stock control.
  • “best if used by” date — generally indicates when the food will no longer be at its highest quality.
  • “use by” date — typically used by manufactures to mean the same thing as “best if used by.”
  • “freeze by” date — recommended date for freezing.
  • “enjoy by” date — this label is used by some manufacturers, but isn’t clearly defined. Or useful for consumers.

Note that these terms aren’t strictly or officially defined — and the meaning can vary by product and by manufacturer. As if this didn’t create enough ambiguity, given the lack of federal regulation or universally accepted best practices, food companies are often free to decide whether to include date labels at all — and they don’t always do so with the consumer’s best interests in mind. According to a 2003 report prepared for FDA, while most manufacturers accounted for factors like product perishability, labeling decisions were also based on such considerations as space availability on packaging and marketing strategy.

On top of this, with the exception of infant formula, there are no standards for how the actual dates are determined — i.e., manufacturers are free to decide for themselves how to set the use/enjoy/sell/best-by dates on their product labels. As a result, methodology varies widely, and is often based not on food safety, nutritional value or usability, but rather on safeguarding product and brand reputation.

And — surprise, surprise — some of the less scrupulous manufacturers exploit the system by artificially shortening shelf-life dates in order to boost sales. Because though food waste causes environmental damage, squanders natural resources, consumes landfill space, uses tax dollars and costs consumers millions, if your business model involves maximizing profits with absolutely no regard for the greater social good, then premature fear-based food trashing can be very lucrative.

Food Safety?

Paradoxically, the existing food date labeling scheme may actually decrease public safety due to consumers’ overreliance on these dates as sound indicators of food safety. Because in reality, they’re not; in fact, variables such as time and temperature control are much more significant. As noted in a 1979 report by the Office of Technology Assessment:

There is little or no benefit derived from open dating in terms of improved microbiological safety of foods. For foods in general, microbiological safety hazards are a result of processing failures, contamination after processing and abuses in storage and handling. These factors are usually independent of the age of the product and have little relationship to open date.

Really, the most important factor consumers should use to judge food safety is not the total duration of a food’s storage, but the amount of time the food has spent in the “danger zone” (40–120 degrees Fahrenheit). Think of it this way — if you leave a package of pork chops in the trunk of your car for an entire sweltering summer day, you shouldn’t rely on the use-by label to provide an accurate indication of whether the meat is safe to eat — and if you did, you’d increase your risk of foodborne illness.

Food Labels and Food Waste

We’ve written before about the food waste crisis in the US — and yes, I write “crisis” because this is a stop-the-presses / all-hands-on-deck / house-on-fire sort of situation; we waste 40 percent of the food we produce, some 160 billion pounds annually. This wasted food is worth an estimated $165 billion per year — and that’s not even counting disposal costs, or the water, energy, land and other resources squandered during food production, processing and distribution.

Among the factors contributing to this problem is that consumers don’t understand the meaning of food date labels, which leads them to prematurely discard usable food. A 2007 USDA study revealed that only 44 percent of consumers knew the meaning of “sell by” (25 percent mistakenly believed it indicates the last day a product can be consumed), and only 18 percent understood the meaning of “use by.” A report by the Food Marketing Institute indicated that 91 percent of consumers trashed food after the sell-by date at least occasionally, and a whopping 25 percent always did so. It’s worth noting that confusion over date labels is universal, transcending age and income groups.

While the impact of inadequate date labels on food waste has yet to be measured precisely in the US, research has been conducted abroad; according to a 2011 report published by WRAP, a UK nonprofit that works to reduce food waste, confusion about food date labels caused an estimated 20 percent of avoidable household food waste.

Eliminating Chaos: Prudent Date Label Recommendations for a Better Food System

The report provides the following recommendations:

Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer.

Sell by dates are intended for stock control; they’re not indicators of food quality or food safety. But consumers often misinterpret these dates. The solution: move to a closed-dating system for stock control (i.e., use codes to tell retailers when to rotate stock rather than dates that confuse consumers).

Establish a uniform consumer-facing dating system.

  • Establish standard, clear language for both quality based and safety based date labels. You know, so people will actually be able to understand what the labels mean.
  • Include “freeze by” dates and freezing information where applicable. This has the added benefit of reducing food waste by encouraging better long-term food storage.
  • Discontinue the use of quality based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products. If a food is shelf-stable, there’s no good reason to impose an arbitrary “best by” date, though a “best within x days of opening” label could still be applied.
  • Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages. Think of a model similar to the nutrition facts panel now included on foods.
  • Employ more transparent methods for selecting dates. That is, don’t base dates on best guesses, but on sound science.

Increase the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels.”

From a food safety perspective, food handling is more important than duration of storage. Labels should therefore include instructions for safe handling. “Smart labels” like the “time-temperature integrator” (TTI), which changes color if a food is kept too warm for too long, could also be adopted.

The role of industry, government and consumers.

The report calls on industry, government and consumers to take the following measures:

Food industry actors. The report recommends that the food industry convert to closed dating for sell by information; establish a standardized, comprehensible consumer-facing dating system; sell or donate near-expiration or expired foods; and educate consumers about safe food handling and the meaning of expiration dates.

Government. The report calls on Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures and state agencies to create uniform food date labeling regulations to standardize labels, reduce confusion and make the application of labels less random.

Consumers and consumer-facing agencies and organizations. The report suggests that these groups educate themselves and their constituents about the meaning of date labels, safe food handling practices and how to tell when food can safely be consumed.

We’re hoping that these recommendations are implemented by all the actors involved.  Because given the ridiculous inconsistency and confusion surrounding the existing date labeling system and the house-on-fire nature of the food waste crisis, we can’t afford to maintain the status quo.


Top photo by Alphonse Mc Clouds / Adobe Stock.

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