“Use By,” “Sell By,” Oh, My! Find out what expiration dates really mean, what policies regarding date labeling can tackle the food waste problem, and how to reduce food waste starting with the goods in your pantry.
Food Waste: The Current Problem
Fact: On average, Americans waste between 30 and 40 percent of food, with estimates as high as $218 billion spent annually on safe but uneaten food products. That’s equivalent to purchasing three months’ worth of groceries only to throw them away.
While various factors contribute to food waste in the U.S.—including overproduction, over-merchandising, aesthetic standards and customer choice—perhaps one of the biggest factors is the current arbitrary labeling system of food products. Amid the variety of food date labels, like “Best if Used By,” “Sell By” or “Packed On,” lie two common factors: a lack of consistency and a whole lot of consumer confusion. But why?
While approximately 77 percent of food (except meat, poultry and some egg products) in the U.S. is regulated by the FDA, the FDA does not require food companies to place any food date labels on food products (except infant formula). This leaves the power to share expiration information entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. That is to say, the “best if used by,” “sell by,” and “use by” designations on foods are manufacturers’ best estimates of food quality. Key words: best guesses.
The dizzying variety of terms that hint at a product’s food date lack uniformity in terminology and implementation. Currently, 41 states and the District of Columbia require date labeling on certain food items, nine states do not and no two states have the same law. Plus, research shows that consumer confusion about food labeling persists across states regardless of whether or not food labeling laws are established. A 2019 survey examining U.S. consumer attitudes and behaviors related to food date labels found that 84 percent of participants discarded food near the package date “at least occasionally” and 37 percent reported that they “always” or “usually” discard food near the package date.
Worse than the high percentages of discarded food is the fact that most are perfectly safe for consumption. So why the expiration date at all, then, if the food is not yet expired? Because current date designations are a measure of quality, not safety.
Why should you care? The current lack of a consistent food date labeling system is one factor leading to an estimated 160 billion pounds of food discarded in the U.S. every year. And, with food waste acting as the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills, the almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions caused by said waste could be largely minimized if date labels were more easily understood.
Food Waste: A Potential Solution
Enter the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019. Reintroduced to the United States House of Representatives in July 2019 by Congresswoman Chellie Pinigree, the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 seeks to address the inconsistent and ambiguous labeling of food products for shoppers who purchase foods, and the grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias that sell them, through a national and universal labeling system.
The Act proposes two labels; a quality date and a discard date. The quality date will specify when a food is at its peak freshness through a uniform phrase, such as “BEST if Used By” or “BB” if permissible and depicts the period when food retains its optimal taste. Similar but different, the discard date will signify the end of the product’s shelf life under any storage conditions, after which the food labeler advises the product not be consumed for safety reasons.
The Act proposes that both labels would be in single, easy-to-read type style and in a conspicuous place on the food package that follows a day, month and year format.
So, what can we do right now?
While the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 is in the first stage of the legislative process, consumers can cut back unnecessary food waste regardless of whether the act is enacted with free tools at their fingertips.
The USDA has funded research on how labels affect participants’ willingness to waste food and has developed a free smartphone application that provides information on the shelf life of products to mitigate unnecessary food waste. The app, FoodKeeper, offers specific storage timelines for various products in the fridge, freezer or pantry. Even better, FoodKeeper offers guidance on how to safely handle, prepare and store foods, and even educates consumers about how to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. Best of all, the app is easy to use and full of facts that you’ll want to share with fellow foodies. Take, for example, what I just learned: Apples can be stored for three weeks in your pantry, four to six weeks in your refrigerator and up to 8 months in your freezer. 8 months! That means the seasonal McIntosh apples you picked this fall could last you well into next spring. Now that is something to get behind.
To download the FoodKeep app or access it online, visit foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app.
To stay updated on the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019, visit govtrack.us/congress/bills/116/hr3981/text.
Ali McGowan is an aspiring Registered Dietitian and a first-year graduate student in the Nutrition, Interventions, Communications, and Behavior Change Program at The Friedman School. A fitness enthusiast and frequent obstacle course racer, Ali comes to Tufts with a professional background in public relations, social media, and content marketing, and has assisted with the communications for Fortune-500 companies, including CVS and Hasbro, Inc.