FDA Says This Small Change on Food Labels Could Help with Food Waste

updated May 28, 2019
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As the person whose job once included chowing down on year-old fish sticks to subjectively declare what my employer should use as the “best by” dates, I’ve long known that they have little to do with the magical date of “expiration” that many Americans believe them to be. Now, the FDA would like food producers to make that a little more clear to the consumer. As NPR reports, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a letter to the food industry asking them to help with their initiative to make the phrase “Best if used by” the standard on packaging.

The idea is that the current labeling, which tends to be “sell by” or “use before” causes confusion about the date as a hard deadline — implying that after that date the food might rot or no longer be safe for people to eat. In fact, the letter states that confusion over the labeling has been estimated to account for about 20% of consumer food waste — and Americans are throwing out about 133 billion pounds of food each year.

According to the FDA’s consumer research, the new phrasing they are recommending, “Best if used by,” has been shown to have the highest levels of customer understanding that the date on the package is the date by which the product will be of optimal quality. Beyond that, the USDA has emphasized that the “Best if used by” date is so unconnected to food safety, that “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.”

The NPR report also reminds consumers that, other than infant formula, there’s no federal requirement to put date labels on food packages. So, regardless of the future phrasing on your food packaging, remember that the date is placed there by a company whose best interests are in you either consuming soon or throwing the product away and needing to buy more.