Use-by dates under attack! Can they be defended or improved?

milk sell by dateNever thought I'd see the day when shelf life matters became big news in the popular media.  Nor did I expect use-by dates to become a source of humor.  But, thanks to a well-publicized new report--jointly issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, (the NRDC) and Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic--use-by and sell-by dates are finally getting the attention they deserve. 


Way back in 2010, Shelf Life Advice published an article entitled "It Says Use By Tomorrow, But You Don't Have To."  Since that year, about 2 million people have visited Shelf Life Advice. But, sadly, we haven't made a dent in the national confusion about so-called expiration dates on food. Now, perhaps, the country is about to enter a new era.  This new report--The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America--not only tells what's wrong with the food dating system but also recommends solutions to the problem. 


Why is the current system bad?


In a nutshell, it's confusing and misleading.  The chief bad results are wasted food and wasted money.  Furthermore, in addition to encouraging consumers to discard good food, it may assure them that food that's actually spoiled or contaminated is okay to consume until the stamped date is reached.  Here's what NRDC staff scientist Dana Gunders says about these dates: “Phrases like ‘sell by’, 'use by’, and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”


How much waste is involved?  In 2012, the NRDC issued the Wasted report, which revealed that Americans discard up to 40% of the nation's food supply; that equals $165 billion worth of food! The existing labeling system is one reason why the U.S. annually trashes 160 billion pounds of food. "Food is the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation's landfills," the NRDC says.


What are consumers confused about?


Here's what the NRDC study found: 91% of consumers occasionally discard food because it is past the sell-by date because they think the food is unsafe after this date.  However, note the following:


  • NONE of the dating on food products is about safety.   
  • Sell-by dates are intended to help store managers rotate inventory.  They're not about safety.  Eggs, for example, are fine to use for at least 3-5 weeks after the sell-by date.  In my home, milk that's a week past the sell-by date begins to taste a bit sour to me, but my husband says it tastes fine.  He often rescues milk that I'm about to dump down the drain, and he's never gotten sick from doing so.
  • A use-by (or best-by) date means that after that time the product may no longer be at its peak quality.  In other words, the taste, texture, color, or scent may begin to deteriorate.  But, if it smells fine, if a small sample tastes okay and isn't moldy, it can still be consumed and enjoyed.


Here's one problem the study didn't point out.  In many households, product dating leads to marital disputes, with one person slavishly obeying the date, and his/her spouse saying that's wasteful. In the October 14, 2013 issue of Time, Joel Stein, in his humorous article entitled "Till Mold Do Us Part," talks about having just such a difference of opinion with his "lovely wife Cassandra." He also includes these serious statistics:  "The average family of four tosses $1,560 of edible food annually" and "15% to 25% of the food we buy isn't consumed."


What changes do the authors of this report recommend?


Here are some of their suggestions:


  • For manufacturers and processors, the federal government should develop consistent, binding federal standards covering whether date labeling is needed, how dates should be selected, and how products are to be tested to determine what the date label should say.  
  • There should be a reliable, coherent, and uniform dating system that is consistent across products, i.e. based on some agreed-upon process for determining the correct date for  each specific product.
  • Sell-by dates should be invisible to consumers.  These are stock dates used for stock control by retailers.  Consumers should see only dates that are useful to them.
  • The language of date labeling should make clear distinctions between quality and safety.
  • Information about how long products can be kept frozen and still retain good quality should be included. 
  • Use-by dates on non-perishable (shelf stable) products should be removed.  Instead, there should be best-by (quality) dates about quality once the package is opened.
  • Safe handling instructions and "smart labels" that use technology should provide additional safety information.    


The benefits of doing these things, according to the authors of the study, would be great: "With better laws, more information, and smarter business practices, we can begin to reduce food waste and make our food system safer and more sustainable."


Hmmm.  I'm wondering how all this information would fit on the label of a package of cream cheese (or some other small item).  Maybe an additional sheet of paper would need to be attached. Dr. Regenstein points out that safe handling information can be put on labels using universal symbols. 


What do two members of our Advisory Board say about use-by dates?


Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein: "The recent survey suggests folks don't have a clue about the meaning of these different forms of date labeling. Clearly, these need to be made more consumer friendly."


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser: I think that use-by dates are extremely useful. Consumers need something to go by to help them pick the freshest product at the store and to make decisions on when to discard potentially unsafe, unsavory, or spoiled food. Most people probably understand that use-by dates are estimates made by the producer and must be conservative in order to apply to 99% of all possible situations. A smart consumer will consider the use-by date as one bit of information in making a decision on what to do with a particular food product. Past experience with the particular food, sensory input (appearance, smell, and feel), intended use (cooked, peeled, raw, etc.), and the consumer's situation (age, health condition, etc.) are other important bits of information that are needed to make wise decisions about food use.


What does your Shelf Life Advice editor have to say?


Though the current dating system is terrible, no one seems to be suggesting that we return to no food label dates at all.  Consumers are used to them and find them handy to be sure that the food they're purchasing does not have an expired date on it. At home, the dates also help consumers to identify and use up the oldest packaged foods first (usually a matter of better quality).  A long-expired date on canned goods also warns consumers to inspect the can carefully, looking for bulging or dents that might mean the contents is dangerous to eat. 


Here is another area of confusion: Many consumers don't realize that the use-by dates on foods relate to the UNOPENED product. It would be helpful if the packaging told us how long the product would remain of high quality and/or safe once it's open. Very few products do this.  The cartons of organic soups I buy say something like this: "best if used within 7-10 days after opening." I'd like to see that on many more products--cheeses, salad dressings, orange juice, ice cream, and so on. Note: Shelf Life Advice provides information on the shelf life of a great many open products, but it would be even more convenient to have it right on the package.


Also, most consumers don't understand this distinction that all food scientists make: the difference between spoilage and contamination.  "Spoilage" means the quality of a food has been ruined.  "Contamination" means that, if you eat the product, the pathogens in it could make you sick. Spoiled food is likely to smell, look, feel, and/or taste bad, so it shouts at you, "Throw me out." When perishable food gets too old, it's likely to spoil (perhaps be slimy or moldy) but not likely to make you sick.  Why not? It tends to be disgusting in some way, so you discard it before spoilage compounds that can cause illness develop in sufficient numbers to become a health risk.


On the other hand, much microbially-contaminated food probably looks, tastes, and smells just fine. Contamination occurs when you undercook some perishables, keep perishable foods at the wrong temperature (either not hot enough or not cold enough) for more than 2 hours, or cross-contaminate food, for example, by cutting cake with the dirty knife that you just used to cut your raw chicken apart.  Here's what the president of the IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) told NPR: "In 40 years in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can't think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue."


One caveat:  Mold in food can grow even on refrigerated items.  Most mold is not dangerous, but some molds produce toxins that can cause illness.  Therefore, the safest recommendation is to discard any food that has mold on or in it. On a soft product, such as jelly, the mold toxins are likely to have spread all through the item even though you may not see them.  If there's mold on hard cheese, some scientists say you can cut off a piece 2 inches from the mold and eat the rest; others recommend throwing the whole piece out.  For more discussion of how to deal with mold in foods, see "Can I remove a moldy part from food and eat the rest?"




Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


nrdc.og "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America"   (the media--press release)  "It's Not a Food Dating System; It's a Mess." "How to Stop Food Waste?  Invisible 'Sell By' Dates on Labels" "Use by, sell by, best by a confusing mess for consumers, report says",0,7678096.story


Time "Till Mold Do Us Part" by Joel Stein, October 14, 2013.



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