Food Expiration Date Confusion

Marian Zboraj

All your hard work in ensuring the quality and safety of consumers’ food supply could, quite literally, be getting tossed in the garbage. A new report on food expiration date confusion co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic found that more than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety. This confusion stems from poorly regulated and inconsistent labels with terms like “sell by,” “best used by,” and “expires.”

There are indeed two main categories of food labeling: Labels intended to communicate to businesses and those for consumers. But they aren’t always easy to tell apart and neither indicates food’s safety. “Sell by” dates are geared towards retail stock control and don’t imply the food is bad on that date. “Best before” and “use by” dates are for consumers, yet are sometimes simply a manufacturer’s estimate of a date after which food will no longer be at peak quality; not always an accurate date of spoiling.

Adding to confusion is the fact that date labeling laws differ from state to state with some not even requiring food manufacturers to carry use-by dates.

Inconsistent labels undermine the intent of date labeling. As mentioned, 91 percent of consumers occasionally throw food away based on the “sell by” date out of a mistaken concern for food safety. (I must admit to being one of those paranoid people constantly checking labels and having no qualms about throwing out food if the date is passed due, regardless of the type of label.)

Date labels are not only creating problems among consumers—supply chain efficiency is suffering as workers are also misinterpreting these labels.

Thus the report calls for the government to establish a new standardized system for food date labeling. The authors also recommend some changes that food producers and retailers can implement to work toward this goal, including creating a labeling system that communicates clearly with consumers by using consistent language; differentiating between safety- and quality-based dates; and employing more transparent methods for selecting dates. They also suggest making the “sell by” dates invisible to consumers and increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels” that use technology to provide additional information on the product’s safety.

Food processors are encouraged to take these recommendations seriously as establishing a reliable and consistent date labeling system can ensure all their hard work doesn’t get tossed aside.

Marian Zboraj

About Marian Zboraj

Marian Zboraj has served as the editor of Food Quality & Safety since late 2012, working from the John Wiley & Sons corporate headquarters in Hoboken, N.J. She previously held editorial positions for a variety of B2B publications in industries such as nutracueticals, eyecare, and industrial manufacturing. She resides in northern New Jersey.

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