Food label sell-by dates get simplified, here's what to know
Currently there are more than 10 different confusing date labels on packages, it's going down to two.
For more than 40 years it’s been one of the world’s more vexing mysteries: What in heaven’s name does the date on a food label mean? Unfortunately many people think it means the safety of the food has passed, but as things stand now, it can actually mean all kinds of things.
With a parade of phrasing and zero standardization, the more than 10 different date labels currently used end up meaning little since there are so many variables at play. There are no legal definitions describing Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By, Best By and so on, and manufacturers use different methods to determine the dates – from lab tests to consumer satisfaction. In the end, current food label dates are really pretty random and subjective. And they lead to enormous waste as food-poisoning-shy consumers toss perfectly fine products if the date on the package has passed.
Here's a quick visual highlighting why it's all so confusing.
© Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic/Natural Resources Defense Council
Thankfully, this is about to change. In an industry-wide initiative, grocery manufacturers and retailers are coming together to “adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of products,” according to a statement by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). The new initiative is being led by GAM and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) – the two major trade associations for the grocery industry.
“Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste,” says Pamela G. Bailey, GMA president and CEO.
From the chaos of 10, to two, as defined by GMA:
Best If Used ByDescribes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
Use ByApplies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.
While the labeling is voluntary, reception by the industry has been positive and standardizing and streamlining the phrasing appears to be a welcome opportunity. Retailers and manufacturers are being asked to start phasing in the clarified terminology as soon as possible with a goal of popular adoption by the summer of next year.
“Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost effective ways that we can reduce the 40 percent of food that goes to waste each year in the United States,” says Emily Broad Leib, Director, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Really a welcome change; more money in the pocket and food in the pantry, and all the while, less waste in the landfill? Sold.