Confused About Food Expiration Dates? You're Not Alone

The grocery industry is taking steps to streamline and standardize freshness labeling on food.


Photo by: ilbusca


If you’ve tossed food a day or two past the “sell by” date on its label, figuring it’s not safe to eat, you may have been throwing away perfectly edible food. Such labels often mean the food tastes best — fresher — if it’s consumed by that date, but not that it’s not safe to eat thereafter.

Bummer about all the wasted food, but you’re surely not alone. Most of us, when it comes right down to it, have no real clue what those dates on the packaging of the foods we eat are trying to tell us. “Sell by,” “best by,” “use by,” “better if used by” and (more starkly) “expires on” — what’s the difference, and what are we supposed to do once the date that follows those words has past?

In fact, research indicates, 90 percent of Americans, confused about the guidance on date labels, toss food away before they need to, thinking — incorrectly, in most cases — that their family’s health is at stake.

Two major grocery-industry trade groups are now taking steps to clear up the confusion and streamline and standardize the freshness wording on packaging, which currently takes something like 10 different forms – a move that confused consumers may feel is long overdue.

The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced earlier this month their aim to get grocery manufacturers to voluntarily use just two phrases — “use by” and “best if used by” — and ditch other kinds of wording. They also want to make clear to consumers precisely what each of those phrases is meant to convey.

“Best if used by” means that the food is probably tastiest close to the date on the label — but it’s still safe to eat once that date has passed. “Use by” is a stronger directive, a designation of safety, not optimal quality, meaning that the food becomes less safe to eat as time passes following the date printed on the label.

Right now, “expiration” dates and “use by” can really mean anything, or nothing much at all. Spoiled foods may not be terribly tasty, but they often won’t actually do any harm. Labeling regulations differ by state (except for infant formula, for which labels are federally regulated), although The United States Department of Agriculture last year issued guidance trying to clarify the labeling on meat and dairy products nationwide.

In issuing its guidance, the USDA noted that Americans throw away $162 billion worth of food annually, costing the average U.S. family of four about $1,500 a year, even as one out of every eight Americans is “food insecure.”

No use crying over spilled milk, of course, but it sure would be nice to know when it’s really too spoiled to drink.

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Photo: iStock

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