The Truth About Sale Deadlines

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You might think that this date is the absolute last day that food is safe to eat. You would be wrong. But you wouldn’t be alone in coming to this wrong conclusion, because the system behind food labeling dates is an absolute mess.

There is no national standard for how these dates should be determined or how they should be described. Instead, there is a patchwork system – a hodgepodge state laws, best practices and general guidelines.

“It’s a complete Wild West,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit that tries to end food waste. And yet, “many consumers really believe that they’re being told to throw the food away, or that even if they don’t make that choice, they’re somehow breaking a rule,” she said.

For food makers, sell-by dates are more about brand protection than safety concerns, explained Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax and trade at IMF, an industry association. ‘food industry.

The best before date, often referred to as the best before date, is the company‘s estimate of when a food will taste its best, its optimal date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it’s at its peak because it’s going to increase their enjoyment, [and] encourage them to buy it again,” he said.

The main consequence of this unclear labeling? Food waste. A lot.

“Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates…is thought to contribute to around 20% of food waste in the home,” said the Food and Drug Administration wrote in a 2019 article.
Wasted food often ends up in landfills, making it a major contributor to climate change. According to some estimates, food loss and waste accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Wasting food also means wasting money, which many consumers cannot afford, especially now that grocery prices are skyrocketing. And the food that is thrown away are diverted from food banks, where they are desperately needed.

Making sense of dates

Although many companies put dates on their products, formula is the only food that must have an expiration date in the United States, said Meredith Carothers, food safety expert with the Food Safety and Inspection Service. from the USDA.

Companies choose dates based on when they think an item tastes the best. But FSIS has its own security recommendations. Many canned goods can last on the shelves for anywhere between one and five yearsaccording to the agency, if properly stored. Under the right conditions, packets of dry rice and pasta can last about two years. The FDA offers food storage tips and guidelines on its website.

But the rules are very different for many perishables.

While consuming shelf-stable items after a “best before date” is probably okay, fresh meat and poultry might even spoil. before the date on the label. This is because store refrigerators tend to be colder than our home refrigerators, explains Carothers.

Once consumers bring meat and poultry home, they must follow home storage rules, she said. The FSIS asks people to cook or freeze some meats within two days of returning from the store.

How we got here

Manufacturers began printing expiration date information on products in the early 20th century. At first, the date was written as a code: retail employees had to associate each code with a date using a key, but for customers the codes were incomprehensible.

In the 1970s, grocers demanded more information about the quality of food on supermarket shelves. Below pressure from activistsincluding the distribution of pamphlets deciphering sales codes, food manufacturers began to put dates on their labels.

At first, this “open dating” tactic seemed to work.

In February 1973, the New York Times published an article titled “Food encounters are found to please customers and reduce waste.” The article referred to a study conducted by the USDA and the Consumer Research Institute, a group supported by food manufacturers, which concluded that open encounters halved the number of consumer complaints about food. purchase of expired or spoiled food.
Food manufacturers began sharing best before dates with consumers about 50 years ago.

But by the end of the decade, those reviewing the system were less convinced of its merits.

A 1979 study by former Office of Technology Assessment noted that open dating may not be the right way to quell consumer fears.

“There is little evidence to support or refute the claim that there is a direct relationship between open shelf life dating and actual food freshness,” the study found.

There’s no way to “precisely determine dates for various products, no consensus on what kind of date or dates…to use for what product, or even what products to date, and no real guidelines on how to display the date,” the report’s authors wrote.

Decades later, we are still in the same boat. “There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States,” according to USDAit is current direction.
The The FDA said manufacturers may not place false or misleading information on labels, but that “they are not required to obtain agency approval for voluntary date labels based on the grade they use or specify how they got to the date they applied”. FSIS’s Carothers reiterated that the dates can be enforced as long as they don’t mislead customers and meet the service’s labeling regulations.

Where Do We Go Next: The Sniff Test

To avoid food waste, some advocates encourage people to rely on their senses to determine if certain foods are safe to eat.

The UK retailer Morrisons said earlier this year that it is removing expiration dates from some of its branded milks, instead switching to expiration dates and encouraging customers to decide whether or not to throw the product away based on how it looks and smells.

Morrisons offered these guidelines to consumers: If it looks curdled or smells bad, ditch it. If it looks and smells good, you can consume it even after the date.

Morrisons said this year it was eliminating dates from its branded milks in some markets.

“When food is broken down beyond the point where we would like to eat it, our defenses work very well,” said Gunders of ReFed. “If the food doesn’t look good, if it doesn’t smell good, if it doesn’t taste good, if it’s slimy…then absolutely, we shouldn’t eat that food.”

In general, Gunders recommended that those concerned about food safety stay strict about eating foods before the best before date if they have a “higher potential to contain listeria.” Any way to identify these items? They are Food that pregnant women should avoid, she says.

Another way to avoid confusion, experts say, is to regulate the language used to describe these dates.

“Best before” versus “Best before”

The Food Date Labeling Act of 2021, introduced in December last year, wants manufacturers to only use “use by” or “best if used by” before dates on labels. The bill is the latest in a series of legislative efforts to establish a national labeling standard.

Here’s the logic: Companies that decide to date labels must make it clear to consumers whether the item is potentially dangerous after that. date, or if it just tastes a little off. If it’s a security issue, they should use “use by”. If it’s food grade, “best if used by” is the way to go.

The Gunders and agencies like the FDA and USDA see this label harmonization as a good solution. Many companies have already made the transition.

Del Monte, which sells canned fruits and vegetables among other products, uses “best if used by.” In an email, the company explained that the dates “are indicative”. Dole, who has dates on its packaged salads, also uses the “best if used before” label.

Even if the bill becomes law and all companies make the same changes, there will still be one missing piece of the puzzle: alerting consumers to the change and what it means.

After all, consumers buying an item today won’t necessarily know that “use before” is distinct from “best if used before,” or whether either is different from something like “enjoy before.” or “sell ahead”. ”

To make the dates clearer to the public, there needs to be a “constant and committed effort to help consumers think about this,” said IMF’s Harig. “I think it’s going to take some work to figure it out.”

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