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.
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.
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.
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.
At first, this “open dating” tactic seemed to work.
But by the end of the decade, those reviewing the system were less convinced of its merits.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Another way to avoid confusion, experts say, is to regulate the language used to describe these dates.
“Best before” versus “Best before”
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.”