'Best By' Labels on Food Receive a Fresh Look

Varying wording may add to consumers' confusion about whether a product is safe to eat
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 5, 2022 7:50 PM CDT
A Big Reason for Food Waste May Be Those 'Best By' Labels
Patty Apple and Cristobal Salvador load boxes of produce for donation at Food Shift, a nonprofit organization that collects unwanted groceries and distributes them to the needy on Sept. 13 in Alameda, Calif.   (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

As awareness grows around the world about the problem of food waste, one culprit in particular is drawing scrutiny: "best before" labels. Manufacturers have used the labels for decades to estimate peak freshness. Unlike "use by" labels, which are found on perishable foods like meat and dairy, "best before" labels have nothing to do with safety and may encourage consumers to throw away food that's perfectly fine to eat, the AP reports. "They read these dates and then they assume that it's bad, they can't eat it and they toss it, when these dates don't actually mean that they're not edible or they're not still nutritious or tasty," said Patty Apple of Food Shift, an Alameda, California, nonprofit that collects and uses expired or imperfect foods.

To tackle the problem, major UK chains recently removed "best before" labels from prepackaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a revamp to its labeling laws this year; it's considering abolishing "best before" labels altogether. In the US, there's no similar push to scrap the labels. But there is momentum to standardize the language on them to help educate buyers about food waste, including a push from big grocers and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress. "I do think that the level of support for this has grown tremendously," says Dana Gunders of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.

The United Nations estimates that 17% of global food production is wasted each year, mostly from households. In the US, as much as 35% of food available goes uneaten, ReFED says. That adds up to a lot of wasted energy—including the water, land, and labor that goes into the food production—and higher greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food goes into landfills. There are many reasons food gets wasted, including large portion sizes and customers' rejection of imperfect produce. But ReFED estimates that 7% of US food waste—4 million tons annually—is due to consumer confusion over "best before" labels. Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to answer consumers' concerns about product freshness. There are no federal rules governing them, and manufacturers are allowed to determine the dates. Only infant formula is required to have a "use by" date in the US.

The FDA recommends that manufacturers use the labels "best if used by" for freshness and "use by" for perishable goods, based on surveys showing that consumers understand those phrases. But the effort is voluntary, and the language on labels varies widely, causing widespread confusion among consumers. Richard Lipsit, who owns a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, California, says milk can be safely consumed up to a week after its "use by" date. Gunders says canned goods and many packaged foods can be safely eaten years after their "best before" date. The FDA suggests consumers look for changes in color, consistency, or texture to determine if foods are all right to eat. "Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of decay, when food is past its edible point," Gunders says.

(Read more food labeling stories.)

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