Expiring Confusion About Food Date Labels

The Food Date Labeling Act would standardize date labels on food packaging and reduce confusion about their meanings which is a leading cause of food waste.

Advertisement from SaveTheFood.com shows a carton of milk stamped with the words "BEST IF USED." alongside a statistic "40% of Food in America Is Wasted." The catchphrase is Cook It. Store It. Share It. above a box with the campaign name SavetheFood.com and a logo for NRDC

Congress has an opportunity to help tackle America’s food waste problem via the bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act. Nearly 10% of all wasted food in the U.S. is due to confusion over how to interpret food date labels—often mistakenly thought of as “expiration dates.”* The numerous types of date labels confuse consumers who believe their food will make them sick when more often the manufacturer is intending to relay a guarantee of peak freshness.

When we prematurely toss good food or let it rot in the back of the fridge, America is wasting the resources that go into producing that food, including 80 million acres of cropland, 20 percent of freshwater use, and enormous amounts of fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides. Our food produces global warming emissions at every stage of its lifecycle—from the production of synthetic fertilizer to when it rots in a landfill—much of which could be avoided. But preventing food waste is well within our control.

Aside from infant formula, food date labels are federally unregulated, leaving a patchwork of state laws and differing, opaque business practices that confuse consumers and add extra complications for businesses.  The Food Date Labeling Act would require standardized date labeling with separate phrases indicating whether the date is just a suggestion of peak quality (“BEST if used by”) or a different, consistent phrase (“USE by”) if there is an increased risk of food-born illness past a certain date. 

The date labels in the Food Date Labeling Act reflect guidance from federal agencies about maintaining the safety of our food supply while also relaying clear information to consumers. Furthermore, the improvements outlined in the bill are based on the two-phrase system that consumer packaged goods industry groups adopted in 2017 and pledged to be in complete compliance of by 2020. As part of their 2017 effort, the Consumer Brands Association convened key players, conducted surveys, identified 32,000 products using the streamlined language, and touting that the standardized labels fit into the industry’s culture of sustainability. However, an inventory of current pantry shelves and refrigerators (as my colleagues and I recently performed) still uncovers a plethora of varying phrases with unclear meanings, including dates on food products with no phrases at all. 

Fixing America’s food date labeling problem is especially timely. As we see food prices soar, preventing food from going to waste also means more savings. Full implementation of the Food Date Labeling Act would help contribute a net financial benefit of $3.6 billion annually, most of which would stay in the pockets of American households. But additionally, food banks, grocery stores, and other food businesses would see savings as well. Many food businesses and manufacturers produce and sell the same product across state lines, meaning they often must navigate compliance with several different regulations for a single product.

For example, eggs sold in California are required to have a “Sell by” date whereas those in Arizona are required to have an “expiration” date. Some brands which sell across the state line use the same date with two different phrases alongside it. Meaning consumers purchase a carton of eggs that says it should both be sold by and is “best by” a specified date. Confusion over how to interpret the dates causes too many people to toss food because they fear it will make them sick. The Food Date Labeling Act provides a federal fix to this problem. 

The end of a carton of eggs with a stamped date below the printed labels "ARIZONA BEST BY" and "CALIFORNIA SELL BY"

Eggs sold across state lines feature confusing date labels.


with permission from Brett Williams

Another provision of the Food Date Labeling Act expressly allows for donation of food past its quality date. The hodgepodge of state requirements regarding which products get date labels extends to inconsistencies with donation of surplus food, too. Twenty states prevent or restrict selling or donating food that has passed the package date. The bill will rectify this inconsistency by expressly allowing donation of food that has passed its quality date. Greater clarity about the meaning of these dates will extend to the emergency food system where food banks and pantries are currently challenged to evaluate date labels and explain their meanings to their clients. Importantly, this legislation also includes a requirement that federal agencies educate Americans about the meaning of these two kinds of date label phrases.

NRDC has been working to rectify our confusing date label scheme for over a decade, starting with a co-authored report with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic on the issue called, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America in 2013. In the intervening decade, we’ve tried numerous strategies to fix this problem including state solutions like the 2017 California AB954 which set voluntary standards in part because of the industry promises of a proactive approach to compliance. Because the state still sees numerous date label phrases and more than 80% of consumers still cite confusion over their meanings as a leading reason for discarding food, California Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin is presently advancing AB660 with similar aims as the federal Food Date Labeling Act. More recently, NRDC has joined forces with allies in the Zero Food Waste Coalition to accelerate action to reduce food loss and waste with a top coalition priority for the 2023 Farm Bill to establish and clarify food date labels. 

As we approach the final stretch of the U.S.’s national goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, the time is ripe for meaningful change, particularly preventing food waste from households which collectively contribute at least 40% of all food waste in the U.S.. We need Congress to pass the Food Date Labeling Act so that more Americans across the country know to sniff the milk, sample the cereal, and taste the soup before tossing out food prematurely.

*A soapbox note on the term Expiration Dates: They’re not “expiration dates” because the food doesn’t expire when the date has passed. In fact, some of the dates are actually meant to indicate shelf life to retailers, with the expectation that they will continue to sit in our pantries for a while beyond that date. "BEST if Used By” and similar quality dates are manufacturers best guess at when the product will be at peak quality. But I’ve eaten quite a bit of stale cereal (and other past date foods) without any problem. When in doubt, look for mold, sniff for spoilage, taste a small sip, before deciding whether to throw it out.

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