The Date on Your Food Package Is Meaningless

CC BY 2.0. Margaret Badore

Nine out of ten Americans needlessly throw away food according to a report on expiration dates and sell-by dates. Published by The Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic, the report explains the confusion created by the current paradigm of inconsistent food dating policies and proposes improvements.

There are two main reasons why the dates on food packaging are confusing. First, there's confusion about what the date means. Most consumers think that the dates on the food in their fridge say something about food safety. But most "sell by," "use by" and "best by" dates are intended to indicate freshness, and says nothing about when food may spoil. "It creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety," the report says:

"Evidence suggests that consumer overreliance on label dates results in food being wasted because of safety concerns that are not founded on actual risks. At the same time, such overreliance can also cause consumers to ignore more relevant risk factors affecting food safety, including the importance of time and temperature control."

Second, there's inconsistency, with a patchwork of local and state regulations and a proliferation of different terms that may be used in different ways. Dates may even appear on packages with no accompanying explanation at all. The report calls for standardization on a national level:

"The language used before dates on food products should be clarified and standardized to better inform consumers of the meaning of different dates. The words used should (1) be uniform for a particular meaning across the country and across products; (2) be unambiguous in the information they convey; and (3) clearly delineate between safety-based and quality-based dates."

This includes the elimination of the "sell by" label on consumer packaging, because that information is only relevant to retailers.
Food waste is both a major environmental and social concern. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 30 percent of food in the United States is wasted. The waste is particularly concentrated at the end of the production chain, as both retailers and consumers trash safe to eat items.

Bottom line: Use your judgement

A "use by" date is still only an estimate, recommending when food will be the most fresh. So, if a food doesn't show any signs of spoilage, most likely it's still edible. You'll know if food has gone bad when it smells weird, has mold, or if the package is bulging with gas. According to the United State Department of Agriculture, it's also best to throw away any cans that are rusty.