Most of us quickly scan the expiration date when we pick up a container of milk at the grocery store before purchasing to determine how fresh it is. But, if you also like to check other items in the grocery store, you may start to question what all those other labels like “use by,” “best before,” “sell by,” and “enjoy by” mean.
In fall 2013, a comprehensive report on food date labels was produced in partnership between the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It determined that confusing labels persuade many people to discard food prematurely causing huge amount of waste. In fact, by some estimates, 40 percent of food in the United States goes unused and 25 percent of freshwater goes into the production of that wasted food. Confusion over food label dates is thought to be a major contributor to this problem.
In the 1940’s, the U.S. started producing more processed or packaged foods and Americans began moving off farms, losing their connection to the land. They no longer could trust their senses to help them determine what was safe to eat, so retailers placed a stamp with a ‘sell by’ date on packages.
Except for infant formula, there is little federally mandated date labeling on food in this country. Many of the labels, like those in the meat and poultry industry (see Demystifying Meat Labeling), have little or no third party regulation. And there are only eight states that have cooperated to create some uniformity in their dating of food packages. Manufacturers are left to decide for themselves not only when to use a date label, but what label term to use. Some manufacturers use lab tests to determine the shelf life, others use industry practices, and yet others use product turnover rates or consumer complaint frequency. This leads to a high degree of variability, arbitrariness, and imprecision in the date labeling process. The question that ultimate matters most to consumers is “Can I eat/drink this?” and the answer appears to be rather elusive.