“Sell By,” “Best By,” “Use By.” If food labels are confusing you, you’re not alone. That confusion is causing us to dump tons of perfectly edible food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS) estimated that in 2010, about 133 billion pounds of food (about 31 percent) of the 430 billion pounds of edible food available at the retail and consumer levels in the United States was not eaten as a result of being wasted. It’s a loss of about $161.6 billion in retail value and 1,249 calories per American per day.
On a global scale, food waste amounts to about one-third of food produced for human consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). That’s about 1.3 billion metric tons of food. The richest countries waste nearly as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.
In a scientific review published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, researchers attribute part of the problem to confusion about these date labels on consumer food products:
What it means: The manufacturer determines the sell by date. It’s the last date on which the product should be sold to the consumer. At that time, it’s usually only about a third of the product’s shelf date, so there’s plenty of time left for us to consume it without risk.
The problem: About 25 percent of people throw food away based on the sell by date, even though it’s still good.
What it means: Food should be eaten by the best buy date if you want it to be at the highest quality as far as taste.
The problem: About 10 percent of consumers mistakenly think it’s a health risk to eat food after the best by date.
What it means: This is the date on which the manufacturer suggests you discard the food for health and safety reasons.
The problem: Only about 37 percent of people discard food after the use by date.
In a press release, the paper’s authors put out a call to action to governments, consumers, and stakeholders to address these challenges. Among their suggestions:
Alignment among the food industry to develop a more consistent or single best practices date-marking system which takes into consideration on-package storage instructions. Uniformity is the first step to better inform and educate the consumer, and provide clear, simple direction on food quality and safety.
Revisit this issue among regulatory agencies. In some cases, U.S. and international regulators have devoted excessive resources and inspectional focus on food quality date labeling at the retail level. Quality-based date labeling is not a critical food safety issue; thus, resources could be shifted to ensure that regulatory efforts are focused around more significant health and safety risks rather than on labeling concerns that have to do with food quality.
Provide clear, simple consumer direction on food quality and safety. Data show that many consumers do not understand the difference between a “use by” and “best before” date, and the extent of food waste occurring within the household. […]
Conduct more research to evaluate and further develop indicator technologies (e.g., time and temperature monitoring devices) that could provide information relating to food product quality or safety. […]
Visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, and you may be surprised to learn that expiration dates aren’t even required by law:
With the exception of infant formula, the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. FDA does not require food firms to place “expired by”, “use by” or “best before” dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.
A principle of U.S. food law is that foods in U.S. commerce must be wholesome and fit for consumption. A “best by”, “use by” or expiration date does not relieve a firm from this obligation. A product that is dangerous to consumers would be subject to potential action by FDA to remove it from commerce regardless of any date printed on a label.
As consumers, we owe it to ourselves to learn the meanings behind the dates, to keep food waste to a minimum, and to keep an eye out for our own health and safety.