Clarity on food dating labels could curb waste

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Standardization, education could keep Americans from tossing out good food

US PIRG Education Fund

PHILADELPHIA —  This week, Hurricane Nicholas became the latest in a dark parade of storms to march into the United States, causing power outages that have disabled refrigerators and forced Americans to determine what food in their homes is safe to eat — and what’s not. 

The labels “Best By,” “Sell By” and “Use By” have different meanings, but people who assume they’re all expiration dates commonly throw out food and drink that’s still good to consume. With the exception of baby formula, no product is subject to federal requirements or standards for dating labels on food products. 

Most consumers are baffled by what dating labels mean for the safety of food,” said Isabel Brown, Consumer Watchdog Associate with the PIRG Education Fund. “Arbitrary rules lead to us throwing away nearly a third of the nation’s food supply each year. As natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic impede consumers’ ability to procure food, Americans need to understand how to get the most out of what’s already in their homes and really know when their food is no longer safe to eat.” 

Dating systems vary widely across different states, industries and food manufacturers. In some states you can’t even donate food that’s passed its “Sell By” date, even if it’s still safe and nutritious.

Some states are trying to fix this broken system. For example, a new law that took effect last month in Pennsylvania changes the process for determining dates on milk. Until recently, all dairy products sold in Pennsylvania were labeled with a “Sell By” date that is 17 days after production. The new law lets producers put more accurate dates on their products based on new testing systems. This means that the labeled dates are based on science — not an arbitrary window of time. Dairy producers can get approval to change the “Sell By” label on their milk to a more accurate date that can extend beyond 17 days. More accurate dates should lead to fewer people spilling out milk prematurely.

Most label dates refer more to food quality than food safety. Our new tips guide explains what terms such as “Best By” and “Use By” actually mean and how consumers can tell when something is safe to eat or not.


Check out our guide: What you Need to Know About Food Dating