How to reduce food waste by understanding food date labels

food date label
Open Food Facts. Original image cropped.

Food packages often have food date labels. They use such phrases as “used before,” expires on,” best by,” “best if used by,” “use by,” or “sell by” before the dates. As it turns out, consumers find these labels confusing. A survey in 2007 determined that fewer than half of respondents could correctly identify how those phrases differed and what they meant for food safety. 

Too often, they discarded food based on faulty understanding of them. Americans waste about 30% of the food we produce or import. And misunderstanding the food date labels accounts for about 20% of all food waste in America. To put it another way, 6% of the food supply gets wasted just from people not understanding the labels. 

Assigning those dates is not an exact science. And a lot depends on how you store foods after you get them home. Food may spoil before the date on the package. Food-borne pathogens can get into foods if, for example, you leave them out of the refrigerator for too long. 

Some bacteria make their presence visibly obvious, as does mold. But others do not. Food that looks safe may not be. 

No government agency has direct responsibility to regulate food date labeling. All the labeling you see is voluntary by the manufacturer. Federal regulations only forbid misleading labeling. 

Some state regulations do have labeling requirements. They are not uniform. As of February 2016, 19 states restricted product sales after the package date has passed. That despite the fact that, in many cases, the date has nothing to do with food safety guidelines. To the extent that these regulations require stores to discard perfectly good food or face a fine, they only add to the food waste problem.  And food sustainability includes eliminating or minimizing food waste.

Simplifying food date labels

food date label
Open Food Facts. Original image cropped.

The food industry is attempting to simplify and standardize the dates and their labels. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) actively supports the effort.

It plans to make the “sell by” date, which is addressed to the store, invisible to customers. It means that products should not remain on the shelf for sale after that date. It does not address food quality or food safety at all. The food is almost certain still wholesome and nutritious. 

By abandoning that label, the food industry will render state regulations based on them obsolete. Thereby, it should help reduce food waste in America.

Here are the two food date labels that, according to the FDA will remain after simplification. They are the ones that most unambiguously describe food from the standpoint of food safety guidelines.

“Best if used by” represents the manufacturer’s best guess as to when a product may start to taste not quite right, but it’s still safe to use it. Do not throw out food with that label just because that date has passed. If, however, it has noticeably changed texture, consistency, or color, then throw it out. 

“Use by,” on the other hand, applies to perishable foods. It’s an estimate of the date on which the food will start to go bad. When that date passes, discard the food. But, of course, it’s best to keep track of the food and eat it before that date. 

Actually, when I looked at dates in the grocery store, even packaged salad had “Best if used by” dates. “Use by,” it seems, would convey useful safety information, but I didn’t find it where I expected.

Food safety tips

The FDA has four basic suggestions to avoid getting sick from food illnesses:

  • Clean: Wash your hands, counters, tools, and the food. Rinse fruits and vegetables, for example, and clean the lids on cans before you open them.
  • Separate: Keep raw meat, etc. separate from everything else. After you have cut it, don’t use the same cutting board for anything else. 
  • Cook: Heat kills germs, but different foods require different internal temperatures to do it. 
  • Chill: put foods in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of bringing them home from the store or cooking them. Marinate foods in the refrigerator. Never thaw frozen food by letting it sit out. Either thaw it in the refrigerator, under cold water, or in the microwave. 

Notice that these food safety tips do not include any reference to the food date labels on packaging. 

Here are some more I’ve found:

  • Do not let raw meat, poultry, or fish come in contact with other foods—especially not ready-to-eat foods. 
  • Wash countertops before placing unpackaged food on them. 
  • Wash your hands before and after handling foods. Especially wash after handing raw meat, poultry, or fish. 

It matters whether you have opened a container or not. You can safely keep many foods past the food date label on the package if you haven’t opened them. When you open them, you should use them quickly. 

How quickly depends on the food item. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has created a FoodKeeper App that gives suggestions for how long hundreds of different foods will last. 

Recommendations for reducing food waste

Besides cooking and storing food correctly,

  • Understand the food date labels.
  • Do not buy on impulse.
  • Do not buy more perishable food than you can use before it spoils.
  • Use the refrigerator and freezer as appropriate to keep foods fresh and usable as long as possible. Refrigerate all perishable foods promptly, within two hours.
  • Ask for smaller portions at restaurants if you don’t think you can eat everything. And if you take leftovers  home, refrigerate or freezes them within two hours. 
  • Be sure to eat refrigerated leftovers and other foods before they spoil.

Confused by labels on packaged foods? / US Food & Drug Administration. May 23, 2019
Food safety at home / US Food & Drug Administration. May 29, 2019
Standardized date labeling / ReFED. [February 2016]
Understanding dates on food labels / Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. April 4, 2019

Shop related products:

Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food / Dana Gunders

Waste Not: How To Get The Most From Your Food / James Beard Foundation

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Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste / Bea Johnson

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