As awareness grows around the world about the problem of food waste, one culprit is being scrutinized: best before dates on food packaging. While food and beverage manufacturers have used the labels for decades to estimate peak freshness, consumers are confused about date codes, often causing more food waste than necessary.
There is a generally held assumption among consumers that best before dates mark the expiration date of a food item. However, unlike ‘use by’ dates, which can be found on perishable food items like meat, dairy and produce, best before dates have nothing to do with food safety and may encourage consumers to throw out food that is perfectly safe to eat. Best before dates simply indicate food quality and recommend when a product’s taste and texture will be at its best.
This important distinction has caused confusion among consumers, with one poll indicating that 80 percent of consumers don’t understand how to read the dates properly. Many consumers mix up the terms ‘best by’ and ‘use by,’ causing them to discard of food as soon as it reaches the best before date because they believe it is unsafe to eat after this.
Confusion around date codes on food packaging is often cited as a contributor to food waste across the US and globally. To tackle this problem, some grocery stores are making strides to remove the best before dates. For example, major UK chains like Aldi, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose recently removed best before dates from pre-packaged fruits and vegetables.
With this approach, the idea is that less food will be thrown out because consumers will be using their best judgement to determine whether food products are still safe to eat. The need for a date becomes pointless when consumers can use their sight, smell or touch to figure out whether cow’s milk, for example, is still safe to drink.
So, will this trend emerge in the US? Currently, there is no similar push to scrap best before dates, nor is there federal law of date labels for food products other than baby formula. Date codes were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to answer consumers’ concerns about product freshness. Since there are no federal rules governing them, manufacturers are allowed to determine when they believe their products will taste best.
This means, across state lines, consumers will find a mishmash of different labels that fall under various state laws and guidance. While best before dates are mostly well-intentioned, the lack of standardized legislation is cause for concern. That’s why some US chains including Walmart have shifted their store brands to standardized ‘best if use by’ and ‘use by’ labels.
Some federal agencies, trade groups and politicians are also urging businesses to stop using a variety of terms with unclear meanings, including ‘Enjoy By’ and ‘Expires On,’ and instead create common standards that all consumers can understand at face value. In the meantime, consumers should continue using their best judgement in determining whether food is safe to eat.