Have you ever thrown away milk because the “sell by,” “use by,” or “best before” date on the carton expired? Did it smell bad? Taste bad?
If it seemed fine but you were confused about what a date meant, you may not be alone. A survey was conducted in September, 2013 by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that led to the report, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” This report suggests that many consumers are confused by expiration dates on food labels.
The authors describe consumer confusion over the meaning of terms such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” on food products. For example, the authors discuss “sell by” dates, which are a tool for retailers to use in stock control. “Sell by” dates indicate the date by which a grocery store should no longer sell an item, so that the item can have shelf life after a consumer purchases the product. In reality, “sell by” dates are not meant to communicate with consumers, nor do they indicate the food is bad on that date. (Speaking from personal experience, I’m sure I have thrown food out on a “sell by” date.)
By contrast, the report also discusses dates labeled “best before” or “use by,” which are often the manufacturer’s estimate of the date after which food will no longer be at peak quality, rather than a date on which the food has become spoiled or unsafe.
This topic raises some of the same issues involved in claim substantiation because dates on food labels provide a type of claim about the shelf life or longevity of a food item.
Food Waste and Consumer Confusion Over Expiration Dates
The report cites sources indicating that about 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten, with Americans wasting 160 billion pounds of food each year. The report also points out that the production of wasted food has a variety of negative consequences – it costs American households money, adds to landfills, wastes fresh water, and diverts food that could have gone to families who are “food insecure.”
It also suggests that better policies and practices for date labeling on food could help reduce waste and improve food safety.
As Americans have moved away from farms and become used to buying food from sources such as supermarkets, they have become less knowledgeable about their food. According to the authors, the current system of expiration dates does not sufficiently distinguish between dates that are related to food quality (whether the food is of good quality) versus food safety (whether the food is safe to eat). At the same time, the dates do not provide feedback about the conditions under which the food was kept.
Regulating Expiration Dates on Food
The report describes a patchwork of federal and state regulations that govern food labeling, involving the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as a host of state agencies and the U.S. Congress.
It describes how labeling regulations can vary across states. Here are a few examples using milk:
- Florida: All milk and milk products “shall be legibly labeled with their shelf life date,” but shelf life date is never defined.
- California: Milk is required to have a date that the processor decides is the date “to insure quality, such product is normally removed from the shelf” but sale after that date is not restricted.
- Montana: Milk must have a “sell by” date within 12 days of pasteurization, while Pennsylvania requires it within 17 days.
- New Hampshire: A “sell by” date is required for cream but not milk.
- New York, Texas, and Wisconsin: Among many other states, these states have no requirements for date labels on milk or dairy.
Possible Actions to Reduce Consumer Confusion on Food Labels
The report offers several recommendations to help standardize and clarify the food date labeling system across the U.S.:
- Make “sell by” dates invisible to consumers, as they are business-to-business communications and may be mistakenly interpreted by consumers as safety dates.
- Establish a more uniform, easy to understand date label system that communicates clearly with consumers. Such a system might use more standard and clear language, include “freeze by” dates, remove or replace quality-based dates on (non-perishable) shelf-stable products, place date labels in a predictable location on packages, and use more transparent methods to select dates.
- Increase the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels” that use technology to provide additional information on the product’s safety.
Consumer Behavior and Confusion Over Food Expiration Dates
In my opinion, this is obviously a very complex problem, one that involves a wide range of federal and state authorities, as well as food manufacturers and consumers. Some pundits have interpreted the report as suggesting that manufacturers are intentionally misleading consumers into throwing away food so they will buy more, but I think the issue is far more complex than that.
While there may appear to be incentives for manufacturers to get consumers to throw away food and buy new items, there are also incentives for manufacturers to keep consumers safe by maintaining a risk-averse approach to dates on food labels.
When considering expiration dates on food labels, as with any advertising claim or with any statement made on consumer products, consumers are an inherent element that must be considered in any potential solution. Consumer behavior in regards to food tends to be driven by attitudes and habits. As the report discusses, consumers should be educated, and should educate themselves, about food safety and expiration dates. Information on food labels is only useful to the extent that consumers take the time to read it, and have sufficient background to know what it means.
Dr. Bruce Isaacson
MMR Strategy Group