Photograph by Brian Finke, National Geographic
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Americans could save about 8 million pounds of food if they didn't automatically throw things out on their sell-by dates. This Boston supermarket sells nearly-expired food at low prices.
Photograph by Brian Finke, National Geographic
The Plate

“Sell By” Date Labels Confuse Customers, Increase Food Waste

This article is best before 5/21/16

Quick quiz:After reading the above date label, do you:

a) Check out the first few sentences to see if it’s any good

b) Read without hesitation because you don’t trust date labels

c) Click away very, very quickly

If you answered a), you’re hopefully now learning that, of course it is! If b), good for you. If you chose c), then you’re in the majority, as a recent national survey found that 84 percent of Americans throw away food based on the date stamped on packages.

That May 2016 study documents a striking amount of confusion over the meaning of the myriad date label terms. Phrases like “best by,” “use before,” and “freshest before” are just plain confusing. And that’s before you consider “expires on,” “sell by,” and the dreaded date without a label. (The study was conducted by Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, along with the National Consumer League.)

Yet, despite that mess, 91 percent of Americans say they pay attention to date labels in making decisions on whether to eat something, according to a 2015 study out of Johns Hopkins. And a a recent Food and Health Survey found that “expiration date” is the most important factor on a food package for seven out of ten Americans when considering purchasing or eating an item.

“These surveys document that consumers are using date labels to make decisions and that they’re throwing away food they don’t have to because of misunderstandings of what those labels mean,” says Roni Neff, a director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a lead author of both the 2015 and 2016 studies.

And those misunderstandings are costly. The recent ReFED report estimated that date labels cost American consumers almost $30 billion annually. That same report found that standardizing date labels could prevent eight million pounds of good, safe food from meeting a premature demise. That would be quite useful in a country where 47 million Americans live in food insecure homes.

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A grocery store in Boston sells nearly expired food at a discount. Photograph by Brian Finke, National Geographic

So what do date labels actually mean? Almost all of those printed dates represent a manufacturer’s estimate on when their food’s taste and texture will start to degrade. The lone exception is “sell-by,” which tells retailers how long to display their items, but also doesn’t denote when the food will go bad. “In the U.S., date labels are not safety labels … they’re used to indicate quality,” Neff says.

Also, while 37 percent of Americans believe the labels are regulated, they aren’t, Neff says. For that reason, the best course of action tends to be trusting one’s senses—of smell, sight and taste. Because food can last well past its printed date, or not quite as long, depending on how it was stored.

At the policy level, there has long been consensus on the need to reform the jumble of date label terms and state regulations, but no agreement on how to do so. Yet, as the scale of the food waste issue in general and the date label problem in particular has come into focus, elected officials are now proposing reform.

A California effort to standardize date labels narrowly failed after the food industry, led by the Grocery Manufacturers, pledged to voluntarily reform date labels by the end of the year, according to Nick Lapis, Legislative Coordinator for Californians Against Waste and the bill’s co-sponsor. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s main argument was that state-by-state legislation doesn’t work,” Lapis says. “And so hopefully that means they’d support a national bill.”

And that national bill just materialized this past Wednesday, as Richard Blumenthal, Senate Democrat from Connecticut; and Chellie Pingree, Democrat Representative from Maine, introduced the Food Date Labeling Act to create a uniform national date labeling system. Like the California legislation, this would simplify terms to either “best if used by” or “expires on.” The Food Date Labeling Act would also allow for the sale or donation of foods after the quality date (currently prohibited in 20 states).

At this point, nobody knows if the Food Date Labeling Act will pass or even be brought to the floor for a vote, but it could receive a boost from Congressional hearings on food waste held by the House Agriculture Committee next week. Then again, given that setting, discussion will likely to focus on policy germane to the next farm bill, not households and retailers. Californians Against Waste’s Lapis remained skeptical about the bill’s prospects. “I’m not a D.C. insider, but my sense is that not much happens there. So I’m not holding my breath,” Lapis says. “And given the Presidential frontrunners, I doubt that there will be less gridlock in the future. But I hope I’m wrong.”

Still, that consensus on the need for standardized, national terms and subsequent consumer education is gaining traction.

Meghan Stasz, Director, Sustainability at Grocery Manufacturers of America says the industry has been working on the issue for some time—well before the California legislation—as part of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. Stasz believes that the solutions could come about through legislation or happen without it. “A national standard is important and necessary to reduce consumer confusion and that can likely be achieved in a myriad of ways, which is why industry is working to create a voluntary standard and simultaneously working with federal legislators who are interested in this issue,” Stasz said.

Regardless of how it happens, change feels likely. Today’s hash of date label terminology is already well past its “expires on” date (not to mention its “best if used by” date).

Jonathan Bloom is a journalist, speaker, and consultant on the topic of wasted food. Bloom is the author of American Wasteland and creator of the blog Wasted Food, You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @WastedFood, or in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, two sons and many, many containers for leftovers.