Rethinking SELL BY/BEST BY Date

Is Your Food Expired? Don’t Be So Quick to Toss It

September 30, 2013 |

Story at-a-glance

  • ‘Use by’ and ‘best by’ dates on food are only an indicator of peak freshness, not a measure of food safety
  • In many cases, foods are still safe to eat even after these dates have expired
  • Forty percent of the US food supply is thrown away uneaten every year because of expired food dates, even though the food is often still safe
  • ‘Sell by’ dates aren’t meant for consumer use at all; they’re intended to help retailers ensure proper product turnover
  • The greatest factor impacting whether your perishable food has spoiled isn’t total storage time but rather how much time it spends in the temperature ‘danger zone’ (between 40-120 degrees F)

By Dr. Mercola

Forty percent of the US food supply is thrown away uneaten every year because of expired food dates, but a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard suggests that most of that food is still safe to eat.1

Labels like ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ on foods aren’t actually an indicator of food safety, as many believe them to be, and, the report found, more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing out food prematurely because of misunderstandings of what food dates actually mean. In short, many foods are still safe to eat even after they’re expired.

There is Only ONE National Regulation on Food Dating

While both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have the authority to regulate food dating, neither does, with the exception of infant formula (the only food product with a federally regulated date label, as the nutrients in the formula decline over time).

The rest of the food market has no such federal dating regulations, and the end result is a veritable free for all, with some states requiring food dates and establishing selling restrictions based on them and others not.

For instance, 20 states restrict stores from selling products after the use by dates while 30 do not. As the report highlights, are the people in the 20 more restrictive states better off? Most likely not …

Adding to the confusion, even when products are regulated, the rules vary by state and even then definitions are vague and provide little usefulness, if any. According to the report:

  • In Florida, all milk and milk products “shall be legibly labeled with their shelf-life date,” but shelf life date is never defined.
  • In California, milk is required to have a date that the processor decides is the date “to ensure quality, such product is normally removed from the shelf” but sale after that date is not restricted.
  • In Montana, milk must have a “sell by” date within 12 days of pasteurization, while Pennsylvania requires it within 17 days.
  • In New Hampshire, a “sell by date” is required for cream but not milk.
  • New York, Texas, and Wisconsin, among many other states, have no requirements for date labels on milk or dairy.

There is No Way for You to Know How a ‘Use By’ Date is Calculated

It’s not only what happens to products after a ‘use by’ or ‘best by’ date has been applied that’s confusing. Even the creation of the date itself is subject to incredible variance and, ultimately, is up to individual product manufacturers to determine.

Again, while most assume such dates are used as a means for food safety, most manufacturers view them as a tool to protect their product’s reputation. They want you to consume their product at its peak freshness and flavor, which means many set food dates conservatively.

Yet, the food is many times still safe to eat after the date expires, often with minimal, if any, changes in taste or texture. Even the methods used by manufacturers to set food dates vary. The report explained:

“Some use lab tests, others use literature values, and yet others use product turnover rates or consumer taste testing … In consumer testing, some manufacturers will allow for a level of change in quality over time before setting a date limit, whereas others set them more conservatively

… Thus, while open dating appears on the surface to be an objective exercise, consumer preferences and brand protection impact the way most of these dates are determined. In most cases, consumers have no way of knowing how a “sell by” or “use by” date has been defined or calculated, and the method of calculation may vary widely by product type, manufacturer and geography.”

So a package of cheese or a box of crackers may have different ‘use by’ dates simply depending on which brand you choose, or where they’re purchased.

Food Dates Do Little to Protect You

The researchers concluded that food dates generally lead to good food getting thrown away, and may at the same time prompt you to eat a food that’s actually spoiled because of ‘undue faith in date labels.’

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