Proposed Alternative Response to Crossword "Sell-by" Clue

This post was co-authored with Health & Food Program Assistant Nina Sevilla.

Dear NYT crossword puzzle writers,

As fans of your work, we were excited to see an area of our work make a cameo in clue 27 Across in Thursday’s crossword puzzle. While it sparked a vibrant conversation in our office, it also reflected a regular point of frustration in our advocacy to reduce food waste. So, respectfully, we would like to propose an alternative answer.

The clue was "Past the sell-by date, say" and the NYT's answer was "stale."
For the most part, your senses – not date labels  –  are a better indicator of whether food has gone stale or rotten. A better answer might have been that items past the sell-by date are “still good!” For many people, sell-by dates – and the plethora of other dates on our food – cause a lot of confusion which leads to unnecessary food waste. And when we waste food, we waste all the water, land, energy, labor and money that goes into producing our food.

The dates printed on food packaging are not federally regulated except for infant formula. Instead, manufacturers typically use date labels to indicate their best guess at when an item will likely be at its freshest. Unfortunately, many consumers and businesses mistakenly believe they are indicators of food safety. This confusion leads consumers to needlessly throw away food once it reaches the date listed.

Of course, your crossword puzzle alone can't solve this. We need federal regulations to standardize date labels on food in order to help avoid consumer confusion and unnecessary food waste. The bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act aims to do just that. By streamlining date labels nationwide and educating people about what they mean, this legislation will help reduce wasted food.

In the meantime, thank you for presenting this opportunity for us to spread the word that our eyes and noses are a better gauge of whether food is still good than these confusing dates. And if anyone  has food in their kitchen that’s a bit past its prime, check out SaveTheFood.com for recipes to use it up (one of our favorites is this recipe for panzanella which uses up stale bread and surplus veggies).

Sincerely,

NRDC's food waste team

About the Authors

Andrea Spacht Collins

Sustainable Food Systems Specialist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

The legislation would reduce food waste (and its steep environmental toll) by keeping perfectly good food out of the trash.

Blog Post

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, Frank Yiannas, recently penned an open letter to the food industry promoting the benefits of a streamlined food date labeling system. Yiannas’ letter encourages the food industry to use the standard labeling phrase “Best If Used By” on food products to indicate food quality, consistent with other recent government and private sector date labeling initiatives.

Blog Post

Dating Game report explains that food is often wasted because of the inconsistent and incoherent way in which food is date labeled. 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.

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