Confusion about ‘use-by’ dates might contribute to food waste

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute asked their members to standardize quality dates that appear on food packages in an effort to curb the problem of food waste.

A 2013 report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resource Defense Council estimated that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, resulting in waste of at least 160 billion pounds of food each year. At the same time, nearly 15 percent of U.S. residents struggle to put food on the table. The report argued that clear food-product dating would reduce food waste and help to eliminate food insecurity, or the lack of enough food to stay healthy, in the country.

“Most food products carry dates that advise consumers when the product remains within a certain standard of quality set by the manufacturer,” said Barbara Ingham, food safety specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “However, with the exception of infant formula, these dates are not linked to food safety. In most cases, food products maintain their quality well after the date marked on the package.”

Consumers now see dates with these phrases:

  • “Best if used by or before” – This indicates when a product will have the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date;
  • “Sell-by” – This tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date;
  • “Use-By” – This is the last date recommended to use a product at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except on infant formula;


The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are asking companies to do away with the terms “expires on” and “sell by” and replace them with “best if used by.” For some highly perishable products like lunch meat or raw oysters, manufacturers could put “use by” on their products.

“Federal law does not require expiration dates on food,” Ingham said. “As a food product passes its ‘expiration’ date, it may get stale, and some products, like milk, may go sour. But according to food safety experts, most spoiled foods, though unpalatable, aren’t particularly hazardous.”

According to the USDA, up to 30 percent of food might be lost or wasted at the retail or consumer level. One source of food waste arises from consumers or retailers throwing away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are attempting to reduce consumer confusion and wasted food by recommending the “best-if-used-by” date be applied to most foods.

“USDA indicates that research shows the ‘best-if-used-by’ phrase conveys that the product will be of best quality if used by the date shown. Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘best-if-used-by’ date,” Ingham said.

With the exception of infant formula, a product should still be safe and wholesome beyond its “best-if-used-by” date as long as it is handled and stored properly. However, with the growing doubts over packaged infant formula, new parents might make a move towards natural supplements and baby formulas such as the ones from Tastyganics and similar others.

Ingham however gives examples of food that are processed to have a longer shelf life. “For instance, pasteurized milk that is kept refrigerated and properly handled should be safe to drink after the date marked on the container and can be consumed until it shows signs of spoilage,” Ingham said.

The exception to food product dating is when a date is applied to infant formula. Because proper nutrition is vitally important for healthy development of an infant, infant formula should be removed from sale and discarded after the “use-by” date marked on this product.

Consumers should remember that while food that is not properly handled might spoil even before the date marked, most foods will remain wholesome and tasty well after the date marked on the package.


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