Sell-By Dates Have You Confused? Not Anymore

By: Charlotte Fisher  |  Friday, February 24, 2017

We've all been there: you're digging through the fridge to find an ingredient for dinner and you stumble upon a yogurt you bought a few weeks ago. It was buried in the back and you forgot about it (oops!), so you check the expiration date. It was three days ago. What should you do? With more than 10 different types of date labels for food products—including sell by, best by, use by, expires by—it can be confusing. Do we take a whiff, nibble a small bite and hope for the best or just toss it? There are certainly times when throwing food away is necessary for safety reasons, but many other times we're wasting good food when we throw it away.

Related: 5 Ways to Reduce Food Waste at Home

What if there were two clear ways to date food products that actually helped us figure out what to eat and what to toss? The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute are teaming up to lead a voluntary initiative that would reduce the number of date labeling options down to just two: "Best If Used By" and "Use By."

"The goal is to help reduce consumer confusion, increase transparency and help consumers reduce waste," says Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "Use By" would label products that are no longer safe to consume after the date listed, like highly perishable foods—the focus is safety. "Best If Used By" would label products that are still safe to consume after the date listed but just might not taste as fresh—the focus is quality.

The current labels aren't as straightforward. "Best if Used By" is used in regard to when a product is at its best flavor and/or quality, not for safety. "Sell by" dates are to tell stores how long to keep the product on display, again, not for safety. There are also "Use By" dates, which identify the last recommended date the product should be used for best quality. Plus, each state handles labels differently—the federal government does not regulate date labeling (except for infant formula). Without consistency in what the labels mean, it's easy to be confused. This new labeling initiative could help shoppers identify the freshest items, and it could also decrease the amount of perfectly edible food that goes to waste.

That's important because an estimated 30-40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste each year. In 2010, we threw away around 133 billion pounds of food. Put another way: Americans threw an estimated $161 billion in the trash. If this new simplification of date labels can help us better understand how long our food will last, consumers and food retailers may be less likely to throw away questionable food. Sounds like a win-win to us. Although this initiative is voluntary, the hope is that these new labels will be in use by summer 2018.

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