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How Dated Food Labels Contribute to Food Waste

‘Best if used by.’ ‘Sell by.’ How can you tell whether your food is still good? Why labels are so confusing and what may help.

At the May 2016 Food Waste Summit in Washington, D.C., Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, told a story about his adult son going through the Vilsacks’ refrigerator and throwing out everything that was past the date on its packaging—even if it was frozen. The secretary’s point: If his own son doesn’t understand what the dates mean, who does?

The answer: not many of us. In a recent survey led by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, almost 85 percent of consumers said that they’d thrown out food based on the date on the package.

With the exception of baby formula, there are no federal regulations on date labeling. Forty-one 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. Often the “best if used by,” “sell by,” and “use by” designations are just manufacturers’ best guesses about how long their food will taste its freshest. Supermarkets may also use the dates as a guide when stocking shelves. But the dates have nothing to do with how safe the food is.

The result? Take something as basic as milk. In most states the “sell by” date for milk is 21 to 24 days after pasteurization. But in Montana, milk can no longer be sold 12 days after pasteurization, a point made in the film “https://chlpi.org/food-law-and-policy,” which shows milk being taken off supermarket shelves and poured down the drain—even though it would be deemed just fine in most of the rest of the country.

More clarity on what dates on food labels mean may be coming, as Congress considers the Food Date Labeling Act. “One of the most common arguments people seem to have at home is about whether or not food should be thrown out just because the date on the label has passed,” says Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who introduced the bill with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “It’s time to settle that argument, end the confusion, and stop throwing away perfectly good food.”

The legislation proposes two labels to be used nationally: one that indicates quality, when food is at its peak freshness, and another that indicates safety, the date past which food is considered unsafe to eat. The wording has yet to be decided, but in the Harvard survey, more consumers understood that “best if used by” means quality and “expires on” signals safety, according to Emily Broad Leib, the clinic’s director.

In the meantime, another way to tell whether food is still edible is to trust your own senses. If it seems off to you, it probably is. Food that’s getting funky is likely to look, smell, and taste bad before it becomes unsafe. (Foodborne illness comes from contamination, not from the natural process of decay.)

If you have questions about your food, download the Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper app or go to foodsafety.gov/keep/foodkeeperapp. You’ll find advice on how best to store your food to maximize freshness and flavor.

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