I wrote a little post almost a year ago about eating expired food after realizing I didn’t understand what food “expiration” dates and labels really meant. Do you? Well, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard University just published a report that can teach us all we need to know. Titled The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, this 64-page study presents the history of food expiration dates, current legal authority and regulations concerning them, and how our misinterpretation of food date labels adds to the horrific problem of food waste in America.
How’d Those Expiration Dates Come About?
We asked for them. As American families became disconnected from how their food was produced and started eating more processed foods, they began to worry about food freshness. In the mid-70’s, consumer demand led both state and federal governments to research open date labeling of food to indicate its freshness. Between 1973 and 1975, Congress introduced at least 10 bills to address open date labeling at the national level. None passed. (I know. Shocking, right?) So state and local governments took matters into their own hands, passing their own date labeling regulations, which differ across boundaries.
Who Regulates Food Date Labels Today?
Let’s just say: “That’s complicated.” According to the report:
Despite occasional federal interest, no legislation [for food date labeling] has been passed, and thus federal law generally does not require or regulate the use of date labels. This lack of coordinated action at the federal level increases the complexity of the food labeling regime by causing a regulatory void that states and localities have attempted to fill in various ways, resulting in a tremendously varied set of state and local laws regarding the use of date labels.
The research team examined state and local food dating regulations and found that states can be roughly categorized into 4 groups:
- Those that regulate the presence of date labels on certain foods but do not regulate sales after those dates;
- Those that do not regulate the presence of date labels but broadly regulate sales after such dates if date labels are voluntarily applied;
- Those that regulate both the presence of date labels and, broadly, the sale of products after those dates; and
- Those that do not require or regulate date labels at all.
The report details which states regulate date labeling for each of the following food types: Perishable Foods, Potentially Hazardous Foods, Milk/Dairy, Meat/Poultry, Shellfish, Eggs, and Other. I learned that Texas only regulates date labels on shellfish — but none of the other categories of food. Hmmm. Nine states don’t regulate food date labels at all. (See Figure 4, Appendix B, and Appendix C in the report for full details on state food date regulations.)
Let me add another layer of complexity: While there is no federal date labeling legislation, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been mandated to “ensure food safety and protect consumers from deceptive or misleading food package information” for foods under their purviews. The FDA could regulate date labeling on products it governs (all foods except meat, poultry, and some fish), but it doesn’t, with the exception of infant formula, leaving it to the food manufacturers to determine if and how they present “expiration” dates. With a few exceptions, the USDA doesn’t regulate food labeling either, although it does provide standards for displaying dates on products if date labeling is done voluntarily or required by state law.
So What Do Those Food Dates Really Mean?
I found the following date labeling terms in this report: “use by,” “best before,” “best by,” “sell by,” “enjoy by,” “freeze by,” “expired by,” “pack date,” “best if used by,” “for maximum freshness,” “for best quality,” “expiration date,” “display until,” and “pull date” (and I’m sure I missed a few). The report attempts to define a set of common date labeling terms as follows:
- “Production” or “Pack” Date: The date on which the food product was manufactured or placed in its final packaging;
- “Sell by”: Provides information to retailers for stock control leaving a reasonable amount of shelf life for the consumer after purchase;
- “Best if used by”: Typically provides an estimate of a date after which food will no longer be at its highest quality;
- “Use by”: Also typically is a manufacturer’s indication of the “last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality”;
- “Freeze by”: A reminder that quality can be maintained much longer by freezing product; and
- “Enjoy by”: A date used by some manufacturers that is not clearly defined in a way that is useful to consumers.
The report goes on to state:
It is important to note that the meaning of these terms may vary from product to product and among manufacturers of the same products because there is no industry consensus surrounding which date label prefix should be applied to different categories of food products.
The Bottom Line
The NRDC and Harvard University end their report with recommendations for a standardized, less-confusing food labeling system. But this requires action from a large number of federal and state bodies.
They also recommend that retailers, distributors, and manufacturers make some changes, including selling or donating near-expiration or expired foods, which are still safe to consume. (Americans waste 40% of the food we produce — roughly 160 billion pounds of food — while many families lack food security. We waste enough food each day to fill the Rose Bowl!)
Finally, they encourage us, as consumers, to educate ourselves and reduce the food waste we create based on misleading “expiration” dates.
It should be interesting to see if action is taken to standardize food date labels. I’m for it, but in the meantime, as long as we know what they “sort of” mean, we can make better decisions. What do you think?