Ever notice the “best by” or “sell by” date on your cereal or marshmallows? Most store-bought foods include cautions of this type. But are they necessary? As awareness of food waste grows, such labels draw scrutiny. Some say they promote wastefulness and excessive spending, without offering any real offsetting benefit.
In the United States, no federal rules govern date labels. Infant formula is the only food required by law to carry a date. Many states require dairy and meat products to have dates too. But most food manufacturers date almost everything anyway.
The “dating trend” has been around since the 1970s. Many U.S. manufacturers then adopted date labels to address consumer concerns about product freshness.
No one truly knows how long products stay fresh, so the dates are mostly made up. Cynical types claim that manufacturers hope you’ll throw the food out by the date they’ve chosen—and buy more.
“[People] read these dates and then they assume that [foods are] bad,” says Patty Apple, manager at a nonprofit that uses expired or imperfect foods. But, she adds, “These dates don’t actually mean that they’re not edible or they’re not still nutritious or tasty.”
Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods. Surveys indicate that most consumers understand those phrases.
But this standardization effort is voluntary. Label language varies widely, from “sell by” to “enjoy by” to “freshest before.”
ReFED is a nonprofit that studies food waste. It estimates that about 54 million tons of food is wasted in the United States annually. Of that, 7% is due to consumer confusion over “best before” labels.
Some countries are tackling label misunderstandings. Major UK grocery chains recently removed “best before” labels from prepackaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union is revamping its labeling laws and could abolish “best before” labels altogether.
In the United States, there’s no push to scrap the labels. Instead, the FDA suggests consumers use their God-given senses: look for changes in color, consistency, or texture to determine whether foods are good to eat.
“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of decay,” says Dana Gunders of ReFED. “We’ve lost trust in those senses, and we’ve replaced it with trust in these dates.” According to a 2012 report she wrote, about 20 pounds of food per American is wasted every month—much of it out of an unnecessary amount of caution. That amounts to about $165 billion per year.
Why? Food insecurity is a worldwide problem, and many nutrition resources may be squandered due to arbitrary dating of perfectly usable resources. While food safety is important, so is wisdom in evaluating that much-needed commodity.