The truth about sales by dates

The truth about sales by dates
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You might think that this is the absolute last day that dates are safe to eat. You would be wrong. But you wouldn’t be alone in coming to this wrong conclusion, because the system behind food label dates is a total mess.

There is no national standard for how these dates should be set or described. Instead, there is a patchwork system – hodgepodge state laws, best practices, and general guidelines.

“It’s the complete Wild West,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit that works to end food waste. However, “many consumers actually believe they’re being told to throw away food, or that they’re breaking some sort of rule even when they don’t make that choice,” he said.

Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax and trade at FMI, the food industry association, explained that sell-by dates for food manufacturers are actually more about brand protection than safety concerns.

The sell-by date, often referred to as the use-by date, is a company’s estimate of when a food product will taste its best, its best-before date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the crop when it’s at its peak, because that will increase their enjoyment, [and] encourage them to buy again,” he said.

Confused about what food label dates mean?  You are not alone.

The main result of this unclear labeling? Food waste. Many.

“Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates … is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of household food waste,” he said. The Food and Drug Administration wrote in a 2019 article.
Wasted food often ends up in landfills, making it a major contributor to climate change. According to some estimates, Food loss and waste accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Food waste also means a waste of money that many consumers cannot afford, especially now food prices are rising. And food does food bank dumps are fun, where it is most needed.

Making sense of dates

While many companies put dates on their products, infant formula is the only food in the United States that is required to have expiration dates, said Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Companies choose dates when they think a product tastes best. But FSIS has its own safety recommendations. Many cans can stand on the shelves anywhere from one to five yearsaccording to the agency, if stored properly. Under the right conditions, packets of rice and dry paste can last for about two years. The The FDA offers food storage advice and instructions on its website.

But for many perishables, the rules are wildly different.

Even if consuming shelf-stable products after the “best by date” is probably fine, fresh meat and poultry may even be bad. before the date on the label. Because store refrigerators are colder than our home refrigerators, Carothers explained.

After taking meat and poultry home, consumers should follow home storage guidelines, he said. The FSIS instructs people to cook or freeze food within two days of bringing some meat home from the store.

how did we get here

Manufacturers began to print product information in the early 20th century. Originally, the date was written in code: Retailers had to match each code to a date using a key, but the codes were incomprehensible to customers.

In the 1970s, grocery shoppers clamored for more information about the quality of the foods on supermarket shelves. under activist pressureincluding the distribution of brochures deciphering sales codes, food manufacturers began to put dates on their labels.

At first, this “open dating” tactic worked.

In February 1973, The New York Times published an article titledFamiliarity with food was found to satisfy customers and reduce losses.” The piece pointed to a study by the USDA and the Consumer Research Institute, supported by food manufacturers, that found open dating cut in half consumer complaints about buying stale or spoiled food.
Food manufacturers began sharing sell-by dates with consumers about 50 years ago.

But by the end of the decade, those who studied the system were less convinced of its merits.

THE A 1979 study by the defunct Office of Technology Assessment noted that open dating may not be the right way to suppress consumer fears.

“There is little evidence to support or refute the contention that there is a direct relationship between open shelf life and the actual freshness of food,” the study said.

“There’s no way to precisely define dates for different products, no consensus on what kind of date or dates … should be used for which product, or even what products should be dated at all, and no real guidelines on how to date. “, the authors of the report wrote.

Decades later, we’re still in the same boat. “There is no uniform or universally accepted description used on food labels for open dating in the United States” According to the USDAof current management.
The The FDA said the manufacturers may not place false or misleading information on the labels, but “they are not required to obtain agency approval for the voluntary quality-based date labels they use or show how they arrived at the date they apply for.” FSIS’s Carothers reiterated that it does not mislead customers and that dates that comply with the service’s labeling guidelines are applicable.

Where do we go next: the sniff test

To prevent food waste, some advocates encourage people to trust their senses when determining whether certain foods are safe to eat.

British retailer Morrisons said earlier this year said it was removing “sell by” dates from some brands of milk, switching to “best before” dates instead, and encouraging customers to decide whether to throw away the product based on the look and smell of the product.

Morrisons offered consumers these rules: if it smells curdled or sour, ditch it. If it looks and smells good, you can use it after the date.

Morrisons said it was removing dates from branded milks in some markets this year.

“When we get past the point where we want to eat, our defenses work very well,” ReFed’s Gunders said. “If the food doesn’t look good, if it doesn’t smell good, if it doesn’t taste good, if it’s slimy… then we definitely shouldn’t eat that food.”

In general, Gunders advised that those concerned about food safety remain strict about consuming food before its sell-by date if it has a “higher potential to carry listeria.” A way to identify those items? they are foods Pregnant women should stay away, he said.

Another way to avoid confusion, experts say, is to adjust the language used to describe these dates.

“Best” vs. “Using”

The Food Date Labeling Act of 2021Introduced last December, it wants manufacturers to only use by “use by” or “best before” dates on labels. The bill is the latest in a series of legislative efforts to create a national labeling standard.

Here’s the logic: Companies that decide to put a date on labels must then make it clear to consumers whether the product is potentially dangerous. dates or if it’s just a little sweet. If it’s a security issue, they should use “using”. When it comes to food quality, “best if used” is the way to go.

Gunders and agencies such as the FDA and USDA point to this label alignment as a good solution. Many companies have already made the switch.

Del Monte, which sells canned fruits and vegetables among other products, uses “best when used.” In an email, the company explained that the dates “are a guide.” which dole It also uses a “best if used” label on its bagged salads.

Even if the bill becomes law and all companies make the same changes, there will still be a missing piece of the puzzle: communicating the change and what it means to consumers.

After all, consumers picking up a product today wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between “use” and “best when used” or anything like “enjoy” or “sell.” ”

Making the dates clearer to the public requires a “consistent and engaged effort to help consumers think about it,” FMI’s Harig said. “I think it takes some work to figure it out.”

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