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.
The main result of this unclear labeling? Food waste. Many.
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.
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.
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.
At first, this “open dating” tactic worked.
But by the end of the decade, those who studied the system were less convinced of its merits.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Another way to avoid confusion, experts say, is to adjust the language used to describe these dates.
“Best” vs. “Using”
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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