'Best if Used By' Is the Least Confusing Date Label on Food

©. andy0man – What's that supposed to mean?

Even the FDA has thrown its support behind this phrase, hoping its use will reduce food waste.

Food waste in America is costly, both in terms of dollars spent and the environmental impact. It's estimated that one-third of food goes to waste in the U.S., which adds up to a shocking 133 billion pounds annually, worth $161 billion.

Much of this waste (approximately 20 percent) is attributed to consumers' confusion over expiration dates, and whether or not an ingredient is safe to eat after it has passed whatever date is printed on the packaging. As a result, there's a growing effort to standardize – or at least to clarify – phrasing across the food manufacturing industry, since expiration dates have been entirely arbitrary up until now.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute launched an initiative in 2017 to "simplify and streamline" date labels. Its two winning suggestions, based on consumer feedback, were:

  • "Best If Used By", which would "indicate to the consumer that, after a specified date, the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to be used or consumed" , and
  • "Use By", which "applies to perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date."
  • On May 23, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a letter stating its support for the phrase 'Best If Used By.' It did not comment on 'Use By', citing safety concerns. From the letter:

    "As approximately 80% of the foods in the US are regulated by the FDA, we would like to inform our regulated food industries that FDA strongly supports industry’s voluntary industry-wide efforts to use the 'Best if Used By' introductory phrase when choosing to include a quality-based date label to indicate when a product will be at its best flavor and quality."

    An accompanying press release explains that date labels are not backed by science, that manufacturers are not required to obtain approval or explain how they came up with the dates. (An exception to this is infant formula.) FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannis, who signed the letter, said, "We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this 'Best if Used By' terminology. This change is already being adopted by many food producers."

    And as date labels are reduced, the hope is that food waste will, too, because consumers will be in a better position to judge an item's edibility. This is part of the federal government's stated goal to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

    Common sense still plays an important role, however, and people are urged to discard any products that have "changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture."