Environmental Issues: Food and Agriculture

Here's a superbly-kept secret: All those dates on food products -- sell by, use by, best before -- almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally speaking, they're not regulated in the way many people believe. The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.

U.S. consumers and businesses needlessly trash billions of pounds of food every year as a result of America's dizzying array of food expiration date labeling practices, which need to be standardized and clarified. Forty percent of the food we produce in this country never gets eaten. That's nearly half our food, wasted -- not just on our plates, but in our refrigerators and pantries, in our grocery stores and on our farms. Much of it perfectly good, edible food -- worth $165 billion annually -- gets tossed in the trash instead feeding someone who's hungry. Misinterpretation of date labels is one of the key factors contributing to this waste.

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. 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. Because regulators, industry players, and citizens have become accustomed to seeing date labels on many food products over time, policymakers have not asked important questions about the date labeling system, and there has been a dearth of rigorous policy analyses of how these labels affect consumers' choices surrounding purchasing and discarding food products.

This report by NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic examines the historical impetus for placing dates on food -- namely a desire to indicate products' freshness -- and the ways in which the system has failed to meet this goal. Relevant federal laws and authorities are described along with a comparison of state laws related to food date labeling.

The main shortcomings with the current date labeling system are:

  • The lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state and local variability in date labeling rules, has led to a proliferation of diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices in the food industry. Such inconsistency exists on multiple levels, including whether manufacturers affix a date label in the first place, how they choose which label phrase to apply, varying meanings for the same phrase, and the wide range of methods by which the date on a product is determined. The result is that consumers cannot rely on the dates on food to consistently have the same meaning.
  • This convoluted system is not achieving what date labeling was historically designed to do -- provide indicators of freshness. Rather, this creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food's microbial safety. This unduly downplays the importance of more pertinent food safety indicators.
  • This confusion also leads to considerable amounts of avoidable food waste as the mistaken belief that past-date foods are categorically unsuitable for consumption causes consumers to discard food prematurely.
  • Inconsistent date labeling policies and practices harm the interests of manufacturers and retailers by creating increased compliance burdens and food waste at the manufacturer/retail level.
  • Date labeling practices hinder food recovery and redistribution efforts by making the handling of past-date foods administratively and legally complex.

What Changes to Date Labels Would Make Them More Helpful?

In order to better communicate with consumers, we recommend the following changes are made:

  1. Make "sell by" dates invisible to the consumer: "Sell by" dates generate confusion and offer consumers no useful guidance once they have brought their purchases home. Therefore, "sell by" and other date labels that are used for stock control by retailers should be made invisible to consumers. Products should only display dates that are useful to the consumer.
  2. Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system: The following five recommendations on how to standardize and clarify date labels will help establish a more effective system of consumer-facing dates that consumers can understand and trust. The system should be consistent across products to the extent it makes sense.

    • Establish standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels: The language used before dates on food products should be clarified and standardized to better inform consumers of the meaning of different dates. The words used should (1) be uniform for a particular meaning across the country and across products; (2) be unambiguous in the information they convey; and (3) clearly delineate between safety-based and quality-based dates.
    • Include "freeze by" dates and freezing information where applicable: Promote the use of "freeze by" dates on perishable food products to help raise consumer awareness of the benefits of freezing foods and the abundance of food products that can be successfully frozen in order to extend shelf life.
    • Remove or replace quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products: Removing "best before" or other quality dates from shelf-stable, non-perishable foods for which safety is not a concern would reduce waste of these products and increase the weight given to labels placed on products that do have safety concerns. Some type of date may still be useful, such as an indication of shelf life after opening (e.g. "Best within XX days of opening") or the date on which the product was packed (e.g., "Maximum quality XX months/years after pack date").
    • Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages: Consumers should be able to easily locate and understand date labeling information on packages, perhaps through the use of a standard "safe handling" information box, akin to the "nutrition facts" panel.
    • Employ more transparent methods for selecting dates: Create a set of best practices that manufacturers and retailers can use to determine date labels for products, and consumers can learn about if interested.
  3. Increase the use of safe handling instructions and "smart labels": Provide clear, pertinent food safety information alongside date labels. This could include additional phrases, QR codes that allow consumers to scan for more information, or "smart labels" like time-temperature indicators.

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

As a consumer, you too can start making changes. First, educate yourself on how best to handle and store food, including with this handy graphic that helps demystify your refrigerator. Second, help us collect examples of confusing dates by uploading a photo, along with the product and brand name, and we'll give you tips on how to know if it's still good.

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.

last revised 10/22/2013

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