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Confusing Date Labels Result in Unnecessary Food Waste

Posted by Walking Mountains Sustainability on Oct 6, 2020 2:00:00 PM
Walking Mountains Sustainability



You may have heard the staggering statistic that forty percent of all food produced in the United States ends up going to waste, thanks to documentaries including Just Eat It and WASTED! The Story of Food Waste. Environmentally, this is problematic because many resources are used to produce that food. According to the nonprofit ReFED (Rethinking Food Waste through Economics and Data), 21% of fresh water and 18% of cropland in the U.S. are used to produce food we end up throwing away. Additionally, when food ends up in landfills, the decomposition process emits methane, a potent gas that drives climate change. 

One of the factors that contributes to food being wasted in the U.S. is confusion around food date labels. According to one survey, 91% of consumers reported having thrown food away due to safety concerns spurred by a date on the package that was actually meant to communicate to a grocery store that the product still had shelf life remaining. Confusion around date labels is estimated to be responsible for up to twenty percent of consumer waste of safe and edible food.

Maybe you’ve noticed and wondered about the wide array of wording used for food date labels. You’ve probably seen dates printed on packaging accompanied by phrases including “sell by,” “best by,” “use by,” “best before,” and “expiration”, among others. Some foods are labeled with a date without any words at all. It turns out that the wide variety of language used on date labels exists because federal law does not regulate food date labeling. In fact, the only food product for which a date label is federally regulated is infant formula.

In the absence of federal rules, much discretion has been left up to individual states, resulting in a lack of uniformity around date labels. For example, 20 states have rules regulating the sale of past date products, while 30 others do not. 

Manufacturers are often left to their own devices to determine the meaning of date labels for their products. More often than not, date labels are a manufacturer’s estimate of when they believe their product will be of the highest quality, and do not have anything to do with whether the food is safe to consume. 

Below are some rough definitions of what different date labels are meant to communicate and to whom. Remember, though, that there is no standardized definition for any of these phrases.

“Sell By” dates are suggestions from manufacturers designed to indicate to grocery stores when they should no longer sell the product. These dates are meant to help grocery stores with product rotation, but they are often misunderstood to mean that a food is no longer safe to eat after that date.


“Best By” dates are manufacturer’s estimates for consumers of when the food will no longer be of the highest quality. 


“Use By” dates are the manufacturer’s estimates of the last date they recommend the consumer uses the product while at its highest quality. 


“Freeze By” indicates the date by which the manufacturer recommends that the consumer freeze the product to maintain its peak quality. 


The Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 proposes standardizing food date labeling in the U.S. by limiting date labels to two phrases: “Best if Used By” or “Use By”. The former would be used to communicate information about food quality and the latter would be used to communicate food safety. 

This act is still pending. In the meantime, you can reduce your food waste by learning more about date labeling and thinking critically before throwing food away due to a date on the package. The Food Keeper app, created by the USDA, has lots of helpful information regarding the true shelf life of different kinds of food. Often, spoiled food will have a change in odor, texture, or appearance that can help you determine when food is unsafe to eat. 

Rita Mary Hennigan is the Sustainability & Partner Relations Coordinator at The Community Market: A project of Eagle Valley Community Foundation. Contact Rita for more information or to volunteer at the market at  rita@eaglevalleycf.org 

Topics: Sustainability Tips, Zero Waste