We’ve all been there. You open the fridge to grab that yogurt you’ve been eyeing for days, only to read the disappointing set of numbers that shows your snack to be “past date.” Into the trash it goes.
With prepackaged foods everywhere we look, we’ve become accustomed to living and breathing by the dates scribbled on our packaging. Whether it be the “best by” or “eat by” dates, those numbers hold a ton of power when it comes to the average consumer's mind. But how accurate are they really, if at all?
The Difference Between Best-By, Use-By, and Sell-By Dates
These numbers seem pretty self-explanatory when it comes to expiration dates. Best-by means it won’t taste quite as good as it previously did, and eat-by means it’s inedible after the printed date, right?
As it turns out, no. There are a significant amount of blurred lines when it comes to both the best-by and eat-by dates. Expiration dates in general lack a lot of consensus, with unclear labeling and random numbers leading to shocking amounts of food waste.
Best-by dates (also known as use-by, eat-by, or freeze-by dates) are suggestive. These dates are determined by each individual manufacturer based on the ingredients used and the packaging process. However, they do not serve as a safety measurement for consumers. Eating food that has gone past the eat-by date is not a guarantee for food poisoning, just as eating something before the date isn’t 100% guaranteed safe.
Sell-by dates, on the other hand, are used more for retailers than for consumers. These dates are not expiration dates for the food themselves but are instead expiration dates for the shelf life of these items. This means that retailers are encouraged to pull items past the sell-by date off the shelves and replace them with fresher, newer foods.
On the United States Department of Agriculture's website, they state that the dates printed on packaged goods are simply indicators. They are broad guidelines that suggest to retailers and consumers the general quality of the food, as measured by those dates. Aside from infant formula, none of the dates used on food packaging is conclusive to food safety, nor is it required by Federal Law.
Sell-by and eat-by dates are suggestive and are not indicative of consumer safety
The main indicator of whether a food remains wholesome or not is how it is handled. Meat, for example, requires adequate refrigeration to keep it from spoiling. If it is handled following the guidelines of food safety, then chances are it will last beyond the printed date.
One of the best examples of this concept is buying and storing eggs. Each carton of eggs from the grocery store clearly prints its sell-by or eat-by dates on its exterior. However, this number is misleading, causing consumers to throw out perfectly good eggs prematurely. On average, a carton of eggs (if handled and stored properly) lasts 3-5 weeks in the refrigerator, and about a year in the freezer. Misleading printed dates steer consumers away from this reality, causing even more food waste.
The Relationship Between Dates and Waste
The average consumer is trained to check their food for the printed dates. But, no one ever discusses why we should do so, or what the dates mean exactly. Because of this, there’s a swirl of confusion as to what’s still edible, and what deserves to be thrown in the trash.
The FDA estimates that confusion over expiration dates accounts for 20% of food waste. In monetary terms, this equates to over $161 billion of food waste in America alone, annually. But this food waste isn’t just about not cooking and eating groceries before they spoil; this is about throwing away perfectly wholesome food, simply because of a suggestive date.
Taking all of the dates off of foods wouldn’t do much good either. People are so used to checking for dates that it would be too much of a transition to handle. But, the FDA has a plan to tackle the confusion of expiration dates with a simple solution; to rephrase the label. Instead of writing just “sell-by or eat-by,” the new labeling will read “best if used by.” This will then theoretically shift consumers’ mindsets from a throwaway attitude to more of a focus on taste.
The FDA plans to make expiration dates clearer to understand in order to reduce food waste
As of right now, the movement to transition the wording of expiration date labels has a high approval rating. This movement follows the federal government’s goal to reduce food waste by 50% by the year 2030. They hope that with a clearer message on food dates, consumers will get the most out of their food before spoilage.
Food waste is a serious problem that goes far beyond expiration dates. The entire food supply chain is responsible for food waste at each stage. From the farm to distribution to the store delivery, a significant amount of food is discarded or lost. It’s even estimated that 40% of the food produced in the United States alone goes to waste; a staggering number considering that 40 million people in our country face hunger every single day.
Then, there’s the environmental costs. It takes a huge amount of resources to grow, harvest, and transport the food we eat. To go to all that effort only to throw the crops away is a waste of both food and energy. Plus, the economic costs are a huge hit to the economy, with over $15 billion lost on supermarket fruits and vegetables alone.
The bottom line is that we have a serious food waste problem on our hands. And while clearing up the confusion on expiration dates won’t fix everything, it’s certainly a movement in the right direction. With more transparency in our food packaging paired with consumer awareness, there’s huge potential to make a serious difference in our food waste epidemic.