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The Truth about Sell By Dates on Food and How To Fight Back

Sell by dates on food

If you believe you have to throw out food that is past its sell by date, you are not alone. About 90 percent of consumers say they have discarded food solely because the sell by date had passed, according to food industry polls, but chances are they wasted good food, money, and resources.

How food producers deceive consumers

According to Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota who has studied food for more than half a century, “just because it [food] reaches a certain date on the package is not a guarantee that the food is unsafe.” So what is the truth about sell by, use by, and best before dates on your groceries?

One big problem is that use of these dates on food is not standardized. According to Dana Gunders, a staff scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which co-authored a new report (“The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Data Labels Lead to Food Waste in America”) with Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, explained that “phrases like ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety.”

So what do these phrases mean for consumers like you and me? Right now, they are apparently leading US consumers and businesses to throw away billions of pounds of food they mistakenly believe is unsafe while children and families continue to go hungry. The truth is, date labels are not a measure of a product’s safety.

What else did the report say?
• Many of the “sell by” and “best before” notices on foods are simply ways to retailers to know when to shelve and inventory the items.
• Food manufacturers often do not even conduct lab tests to determine which dates to put on foods. Instead, the dates are often guesses by food makers for when the item will reach its peak quality.
• The use of dates on food items varies greatly between states. You may see a shelf of cheese, for example, where one brand from state X has a “sell by” date, one from state Y has a “best by” date, and another from state Z has no date.
• Canned foods have a long shelf life—as much as 7 years or even longer—unless the can is dented. Cans dented on the top or bottom may allow air to enter the can, and any can that is bulging or has rust on the outside should be discarded.
• The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization has a new report as well, and it notes that 28 percent of the farmland in the world is being used to raise food that is ultimately wasted.

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What needs to be done
The bottom line is that food waste is a massive, critical problem not just in the United States but around the world even as malnutrition and hunger grows. One way to help tackle this problem is to change the way food is labeled and dated and educate people about food waste.

The NRDC and Harvard report urges retailers and food manufacturers, as well as Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture, to take steps to standardize and simplify a date label system for consumers. That system should include, among other things, easy to understand language, clear distinctions between safety- and quality-based dates, and information on a product’s safety.

You can fight back against ambiguous or deceptive food labeling and sell by dates. Let food manufacturers know you want truth in labeling. Always check food packaging for dates and be sure to store all foods properly.

Sniff or taste foods or beverages before throwing them away. Just because a food product has a sell by date that has passed by, do not assume the item is no longer safe. If you toss that food into the trash, you will be wasting resources and money and contributing to food waste, which according to the NRDC is “the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.”

If an item is truly spoiled or unsuitable for consumption, stop before you toss it out. Some foods can be added to a compost, and at the very least their containers can often be recycled once the food or beverage has been discarded.

National Resources Defense Council

Image: Morguefile