Report Points Up Lack of Oversight on Food Dating

The “sell by,” “use by,” and other types of dating on food products are poorly regulated, and the dates are widely misinterpreted by consumers, leading to false confidence in food safety, a new report suggests. More consistent nationwide standards for these dates are needed, as well as clearer, more transparent definitions for the terms used, the report authors indicate.

The September 18 report, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” was jointly authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The authors note that, while date labeling on food was originally designed to indicate freshness, many consumers mistakenly believe it denotes a product’s microbial safety. This leads to widespread food waste, but also to a false sense of security among consumers, says the NRDC’s Dana Gunders.

“Consumers could be putting undue faith into these dates to mean that a food is safe, and ignoring other things like how they’re handling the food,” she says. “That could lead to situations where they’re consuming unsafe food because they’re over-relying on those dates—which they are misinterpreting in the first place because the manufacturers are not saying those dates are meant to indicate safety.”

The report, the first legal analysis of federal and state laws related to date labels across all 50 states, suggests a number of changes to make date labels more helpful:

• “Sell by” dates, which are meant to convey business-to-business information regarding stock control, should be made invisible to consumers. Products should display only dates that are useful to consumers.

• A reliable, coherent, uniform consumer-facing date system should be established, with nationwide consistency. Currently there is no federal regulation requiring date labeling on foods—with the sole exception of infant formula—and state requirements vary widely. Companies devise their own methods for determining dates.

• More safe-handling instructions and “smart” labels, such as QR codes for consumers to access more information, should be included on labels.

Gunders, a coauthor of the report and a food and agriculture staff scientist for the NRDC, says these recommendations were generated after consultation with food safety experts and other stakeholders. She hopes the report can lead to positive changes in the industry.

“There seems to be a common understanding that the status quo is not serving anyone well—neither consumers nor industry,” she says. “So there could be a desire to move forward collaboratively and evolve to a system that works better.”

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