In 2022, several major grocery chains in the U.K.—Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, ASDA, Sainsbury’s, and ALDI—announced that they would scrap the “best before” date from fresh fruits and vegetables.
The move is an effort to reduce food waste in households. Several studies show that many consumers can’t tell the difference between best before (a reference for quality) and use by (a reference for food safety). According to a survey of U.S. consumers published in 2021 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2021.03.007), only 64% of respondents understood the meaning of a “best if used by” date. In a similar survey conducted in the EU in 2015, 47% of responses were correct, although with vast differences among member states.
This misinterpretation can lead consumers to throw away food that is perfectly edible, thinking that it’s not safe to eat. ReFED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending food waste, estimates that confusion over the meaning of date labels accounts for about 7% of all consumer waste in U.S. households. In the EU, up to 10% of food waste generated each year is linked to date marking, according to a 2018 European Commission study.
In the U.S., confusion over food dates is worsened by the lack of common definitions and practices. Without a national law on food date marking, except for infant formula, each state has its own regulations as to what labels to apply, what wording to use, and whether it’s possible to sell or donate food once it has passed one of the dates.
The Food Date Labeling Act
In 2017, the Consumer Brands Association started a campaign to push 25 CPG and grocery retail companies to reduce food date labels to “best if used by” for quality and “use by” for food safety. Results so far have been quite positive: “By December 2018, survey data showed that 87% of respondents adopted the endorsed label phrases. By the end of 2019, adoption rate was 98%,” says Katie Denis, VP of communications at the Consumer Brands Association.
Voluntary adoption, however, can only go so far. The variety of regulations continues to be an obstacle. “We have several different types of state legislations regarding date labels,” says Jackie Suggitt, ReFED’s director of capital, innovation, and engagement. “That’s a problem for manufacturers; if I have a plant that’s servicing four different states with four different legislative requirements, it’s very hard for me to make a change.”
An important step forward will be the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2021, a bill proposed in the U.S. that would supersede all state laws, making “Best if Used By” and “Use By” the only two date labels allowed on food packaging.
The law, which is pending release from the committees of the Senate and House of Representatives, will also allow food that has passed the quality date to be donated. “The donation part in the proposed bill is really important because right now that varies by state, and we have a lot of edible safe food that is being restricted from donation, especially fresh foods,” says Suggitt.
Such a variety of regulations also makes it difficult to educate consumers about the difference between quality and safety labels. “We can’t go out there and educate consumers on a two-label system right now. It wouldn’t be very efficient, because it’s not yet what people are experiencing when they go to a grocery store,” says Suggitt.
Which Label to Use
While the proposed bill establishes a single national label system with a standard wording, food manufacturers will be able to decide when to use a discard or a quality label. “Leaving this aspect unregulated is a workable solution, but it’s not ideal, as it might create a situation where two manufacturers choose to use different labels on similar products,” says Norbert Wilson, a professor of food, economics, and community at the Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, N.C.