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New report scrutinizes confusing date labeling on food products

Created date

November 26th, 2013
A can of food past its expiration date

The average American throws out almost $400 worth of uneaten food every year. Nationally, that adds up to an estimated $165 billion worth of food tossed into the garbage. Why so much waste? Look no further than the “sell by” or “use by” labels affixed to food packages. Because most consumers don’t have a clear understanding of what those dates mean, they simply trash the food product once the date on the label has passed.

“People are throwing away food because they believe the food is no longer safe to eat,” says Dana Gunders, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “However, those dates almost never have a direct link to food safety. In fact, up to 90% of Americans may be discarding food prematurely because they misinterpret date labels to mean the food is unsafe.”

Gunders coauthored “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” a joint report issued by NRDC and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. “The date labeling system in the US is not a system at all. It is a mess,” says Gunders. “There is pervasive consumer and business confusion around the meaning of expiration dates.” While most people believe there is an objective system behind “sell-by,” “expiration,” and “best if used by” dates, Gunders says, “it’s really more like the Wild West.”

With the exception of infant formula, there is no federal law regulating or even defining the dates stamped onto America’s food products. Rules vary in all fifty states and in most cases, it is the manufacturer who chooses whether to have a date at all, what kind of date to apply, what they interpret that label to mean, and how to determine what date should be stamped onto their product. The result is that consumers cannot rely on the dates stamped on foods to consistently have the same meaning.

Take eggs, for example

Eggs are a perfect example of how confusing date labeling can be. While some states require that a “sell-by” date be stamped onto egg cartons, other states do not allow such date stamping. However, egg cartons with the USDA grade shield on them must display the “pack date” (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). If a “sell-by” date appears alongside the “pack by” date, it may not exceed 45 days from the pack date.

With all that, egg carton dates are of minimal value to consumers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, properly handled eggs should be safe to eat as much as three to five weeks after you purchase them, regardless of the “sell-by” or “pack” dates on the carton.


Before there were massive chain grocery stores, Americans relied primarily on local farms and food sources. As the products on grocer’s shelves came from farther and farther away, consumers wanted some assurance that what they were buying was fresh. Between 1973 and 1975, there were ten different bills attempting to regulate the date labeling of certain foods, particularly highly perishable items such as meat, poultry, and dairy products. In each case, federal legislation failed to pass into law, resulting in the state-by-state system, which is what exists today.

“We need a standardized, common sense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent, and piecemeal system we have today,” says Emily Broad Leib, lead author of “The Dating Game” study and director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. The report calls on policy makers and the food industry to create a better, easier-to-understand system of date labeling of food products.

False sense of security

While date labeling prompts many people to throw food away because they fear it is unsafe, it also gives consumers a false sense of security. A “sell-by” date stamped on a gallon of milk is no guarantee that the milk is not contaminated. Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, says that overreliance on food date labels can be dangerous. “Food-borne illness does not come from food being too old. The pathogen can be there to begin with,” says Labuza. Contamination can occur from time/temperature abuse in transit, in a store, or even in the home. If a product was not kept properly chilled or was exposed to harmful bacteria in the production process, it could arrive on the grocery shelf already compromised.

Labuza has been testing food safety for over fifty years. He advises consumers to keep their refrigerator below

40˚ F. He says he keeps his own refrigerator at 34˚. Beyond that, Labuza says that people need to re-learn the techniques our grandparents used to test food for freshness. Smell it. Examine it. Use your senses. If the food seems off, don’t eat it. Even if the date stamped on the bottom of that sour cream says it should be “good” for another few days, if it smells bad, toss it.

Types of dates on food labels

  •  A “sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  •  A “best if used by (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  •  A “use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  •  “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture