Product Expiration Dates Cause Food Waste

Despite slow progress, federal agencies are working to demystify product labels.

November 21, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Imagine the frustration consumers feel after searching for the “best by” date on a food product, only to find a “display until” or “harvested on” date instead. In today’s marketplace, finding, checking and understanding product date codes can take longer than locating the products themselves, reports Food Engineering magazine.

According to the magazine’s research, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that much food waste comes from consumers’ misinterpretation of product date labels. The various forms of “best by” dates (or simply date labels) often cause consumers to bypass any product with a short “sell by” date, leaving them to be junked at the store or tossed prematurely at home, when the products are still good.

The GAO report, “Date Labels on Packaged Foods,” finds that some federal agencies are working together to specify fewer but more definitive date labels. But it also accuses federal agencies of not working with state, local and municipal authorities since there is no consistency from state to state or among municipalities regarding date labeling requirements.

The GAO looked specifically at eggs, dairy and shellfish and found that Pennsylvania requires labels on milk only and Texas on shellfish only, but Georgia requires labels on all three. Another 11 states do not require date codes for those three food categories. The FDA has the authority to assist state and local governments with food safety efforts, but it has no power to mandate one system of labeling.

Estimates on the number of different date labels currently in use across the industry vary. In 2017, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced a voluntary initiative to encourage manufacturers and retailers to adopt either of two introductory phrases for date labels on packaged foods:

  • A “best if used by” label as an indication of product quality
  • “Use by” for certain perishable products that may be more susceptible to degradation of quality or potential food safety concerns

That change has helped. A December 2018 consumer survey regarding date labels found that 88% said the two date label phrases were clear to them, and 85% said they were helpful.

But problems also exist internationally. The Consumer Goods Forum has called for standardized date labels, and some countries are complying. For example, the U.K. issued guidance on date labels where all packaged foods must display either a “best before” or “use by” date on the package. Canada requires that prepackaged products with a durable lifetime shorter than 90 days must use a “best before” date label.

Based on surveys and other data, both the USDA and FDA are taking steps to clarify date label confusion. USDA’s FSIS has suggested using “best if used by” and adding “freeze by” labels. It also suggests a “sell by” date for retail stores. While the FDA requires a “use by” date on infant formula, it has been suggesting using “best if used by” date labeling for its constituents.