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.