Those “Use By” Dates on Food Are Confusing a Lot of People

published Jun 20, 2018
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People throw away billions of dollars worth of perfectly good food every year. Nobody wants to waste food, but it’s an easy thing to do when you’re standing in front of the refrigerator wondering, “How long has this been here? Is this still good?” And the labels on food packages are not nearly as useful as one might think. In fact, some grocery stores say food labels in the U.S. could actually be contributing to household food waste, because they’re too confusing, and they’re leading people to throw away food that could still be eaten.

A simple two-word phrase like “use by” doesn’t seem like it should be confusing to shoppers, but it really is. Many people would see a date on their food package and assume that was the “throw away” date when the item stopped being safe to eat, but according to NBCDFW, that’s not actually the case.

Dr. Linda Harris, the chair of the Food Science and Technology Department at UC Davis, told NBC that the dates on food packages are meant to indicate when the item will be at its peak freshness or best flavor, but that actually doesn’t have anything to do with food safety.

“The date is meant to signal quality,” Harris said. “It’s not a safety issue.”

The USDA website says the same thing: Only baby formula requires an actual expiration date. Other dates are provided by manufacturers on a voluntary basis.

“Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality,” the USDA website explains. “Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that there isn’t a uniform or universally-accepted description about the dates on food packages in the U.S., and that means food packages come with all manner of different dates on them.

“Best by,” “use by,” “sell by,” “enjoy by,” and “best flavor before,” are just some of the terms we might find on food packages. I just found all of them in my own kitchen, as well as a bunch of other packages that just gave dates with no explanation at all.

“There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States,” the USDA website says. “As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates.

  • A “best if used by/before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.

I can certainly see where that would get confusing for an ordinary grocery shopper who just wants to go home and put food on the table.

Quality dates on product labels are still voluntary, but the Grocery Manufacturers Association told NBC it’s been working to get food manufacturers and retailers to standardize their date-label language and just use two phrases: “best if used by” and “use by.”

“Best if used by” would be for most products, which would still be OK to consume after the date. Very perishable foods would get the “use by” date, after which they should not be eaten. The hope is that the “best if used by” label is more clear about the fact that the product does not need to be thrown away on that date, and that reducing the number of package-date phrases to just two will help people waste less food and money.