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The (Food) Dating Game: Why Expiration Dates Don't Help

Take this dating quiz: The date stamped on your food tells you if it's safe to eat, right?


Here's the secret to the (food) dating game: Those "best by," "sell by," and "use by" dates that you see on food have nothing to do with food safety. They're set by manufacturers, without federal oversight, and most often relate to what manufacturers feel is "peak" quality. The vast majority of consumers don't realize this, and as a result, good food ends up in the trash.

My colleague Dana Gunders has been exploring how, where, and why food gets wasted in America, from farm to store to table. Forty percent of the food we produce in this country—worth $165 billion annually—gets tossed in the trash instead feeding someone who's hungry. One of the more surprising reasons for this, as she explains in a report released today by NRDC and Harvard Law School, is because of the inconsistent and incoherent way in which food is date labeled.

Confusion over dates, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. For the average family of four, this could translate to several hundred dollars' worth of food being thrown away every year—and in all likelihood, more money spent purchasing the same food again--simply because of a misleading date stamp. A senseless waste, when we're all keeping a close eye on our household budgets, and when one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food.

You might think the FDA, the federal agency responsible for food safety, would be overseeing food expiration dates. It does not. The FDA, in its own words, leaves date labels on food, except for infant formula, to "the discretion of the manufacturer." The USDA, which oversees meat, poultry, and some egg products, also says date labels are voluntary. It does call for specific wording on a label, if a manufacturer chooses to use one, such as "packing" date, "sell by" date, or "use before" date. But the agency never defines what those terms mean or how they should be determined. So according to the federal government, a date can be there, or not be there; and if it is there, the manufacturer can decide what it means without any further explanation for consumers. Some state agencies do require date labels for certain products, like dairy items; others, like New York, have no requirements for food dates at all.

As a result of this hodgepodge of rules, the date on your milk might be a "use-by" date, a "sell-by" date, or a date with no explanation. If you live in Florida, your milk has to be labeled with a "sell-by" date, which means—well, nothing, if you're a consumer. The sell-by date is usually a signal to retailers that the product still has shelf life left, which helps with stock rotation. Once that milk gets home, that date does not ensure that your milk is still good; nor does it say that it's bad. It might be good for a week, or it might have spoiled yesterday because someone left it sitting out on the counter. The date can’t tell you that.

Our ineffective, misleading date labeling system is contributing to the very costly problem of wasted food in this country. Wasting food is a systemic problem that's a serious drain on our economy and our natural resources. We use 80 percent of our water and half our land for agriculture in this country—and yet we're throwing away nearly half of what we produce with those precious resources. We waste four percent of our oil producing, transporting, and packaging food that never gets eaten. Food is the single biggest item in our landfills, a source of the powerful global warming pollutant methane.

Overhauling our date labeling system is a straightforward, concrete solution that will reduce food waste. We need a reliable, coherent, and uniform food dating system that provides useful guidance to consumers. The words on date labels should have a standard definition across the country and across products. Labels should clearly differentiate between safety-based and quality-based dates. Manufacturers and retailers should have their own, coded system for sharing information relevant to food display and shelf life, rather than a "sell by" date that confuses consumers.

The food industry and the federal government can and should start making these changes today.

Have you been flummoxed by a date label recently? Take a picture of the date label on your food and upload it to our collection at When you upload your photo, you'll help us get the attention of manufacturers, and also receive expert tips on food storage, as well more information on sorting out the date label mess. With better laws, more information, and smarter business practices, we can begin to reduce food waste and make our food system safer and more sustainable.

Milk image via Shutterstock

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