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Monday 17 October 2022

'Keep it or toss it? ‘Best Before’ labels cause confusion'

As awareness grows around the world about the problem of food waste, one culprit in particular is drawing scrutiny: “best before” labels.

Manufacturers have used the labels for decades to estimate peak freshness. Unlike “use by” labels, which are found on perishable foods like meat and dairy, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety and may encourage consumers to throw away food that’s perfectly fine to eat.

“They read these dates and then they assume that it’s bad, they can’t eat it and they toss it, when these dates don’t actually mean that they’re not edible or they’re not still nutritious or tasty,” said Patty Apple, a manager at Food Shift, an Alameda, California, nonprofit that collects and uses expired or imperfect foods.

To tackle the problem, major U.K. chains like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer recently removed “best before” labels from pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a revamp to its labelling laws by the end of this year; it’s considering abolishing “best before” labels altogether.

In the U.S., there’s no similar push to scrap “best before” labels. But there is growing momentum to standardize the language on date labels to help educate buyers about food waste, including a push from big grocers and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress.

“I do think that the level of support for this has grown tremendously,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.

The United Nations estimates that 17% of global food production is wasted each year; most of that comes from households. In the U.S., as much as 35% of food available goes uneaten, ReFED says. That adds up to a lot of wasted energy — including the water, land and labor that goes into the food production — and higher greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food goes into landfills.

There are many reasons food gets wasted, from large portion sizes to customers’ rejection of imperfect produce. But ReFED estimates that 7% of U.S. food waste — or 4 million tons annually — is due to consumer confusion over “best before” labels.

Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to answer consumers’ concerns about product freshness. There are no federal rules governing them, and manufacturers are allowed to determine when they believe their products will taste best. Only infant formula is required to have a “use by” date in the U.S.

Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration — which regulates around 80% of U.S. food — has recommended that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods, based on surveys showing that consumers understand those phrases.

But the effort is voluntary, and the language on labels continues to vary widely, from “sell by” to “enjoy by” to “freshest before.” A survey released in June by researchers at the University of Maryland found at least 50 different date labels used on U.S. grocery shelves and widespread confusion among customers.

“Most people believe that if it says ‘sell by,’ ‘best by’ or ‘expiration,’ you can’t eat any of them. That’s not actually accurate,” said Richard Lipsit, who owns a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, California, that specializes in discounted food.

Lipsit said milk can be safely consumed up to a week after its “use by” date. Gunders said canned goods and many other packaged foods can be safely eaten for years after their “best before” date. The FDA suggests consumers look for changes in color, consistency or texture to determine if foods are all right to eat.

“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of decay, when food is past its edible point,” Gunders said. “We’ve lost trust in those senses and we’ve replaced it with trust in these dates.”

Some U.K. grocery chains are actively encouraging customers to use their senses. Morrisons removed “use by” dates from most store-brand milk in January and replaced them with a “best before” label. Co-op, another grocery chain, did the same to its store-brand yogurts.

It’s a change some shoppers support. Ellie Spanswick, a social media marketer in Falmouth, England, buys produce, eggs and other groceries at farm stands and local shops when she can. The food has no labels, she said, but it’s easy to see that it’s fresh.

“The last thing we need to be doing is wasting more food and money because it has a label on it telling us it’s past being good for eating,” Spanswick said.

But not everyone agrees. Ana Wetrov of London, who runs a home renovation business with her husband, worries that without labels, staff might not know which items should be removed from shelves. She recently bought a pineapple and only realized after she cut into it that it was rotting in the middle.

“We have had dates on those packages for the last 20 years or so. Why fix it when it’s not broken?” Wetrov said.

Some U.S. chains — including Walmart — have shifted their store brands to standardized “best if used by” and “use by” labels. The Consumer Brands Association — which represents big food companies like General Mills and Dole — also encourages members to use those labels.

“Uniformity makes it much more simple for our companies to manufacture products and keep the prices lower,” said Katie Denis, the association’s vice president of communications.

In the absence of federal policy, states have stepped in with their own laws, frustrating food companies and grocers. Florida and Nevada, for example, require “sell by” dates on shellfish and dairy, and Arizona requires “best by” or “use by” dates on eggs, according to Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.

The confusion has led some companies, like Unilever, to support legislation currently in Congress that would standardize U.S. date labels and ensure that food could be donated to rescue organizations even after its quality date. At least 20 states currently prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date listed on the label because of liability fears, Lieb said.

Clearer labeling and donation rules could help nonprofits like Food Shift, which trains chefs using rescued food. It even makes dog treats from overripe bananas, recovered chicken fat and spent grain from a brewer, Apple said.

“We definitely need to be focusing more on doing these small actions like addressing expiration date labels, because even though it’s such a tiny part of this whole food waste issue, it can be very impactful,” Apple said.
Words above and image from here
h/t Marks Daily Apple site here

Please share any thoughts you may have in the comments below.

For me the important point to remember is: -
The difference between best before and use-by dates is really important. Some foods deteriorate over time in a way that may present a food safety risk, for instance, some meat or dairy products. On most packaged food, (in the UK) depending on the product, you will see either: -
  • a use-by date - relating to food safety
  • a best before date - relating to food quality
It remains important to read the label
For those readers who live in the UK you may also wish to read the Food Standards Agency website here

All the best Jan


Elephant's Child said...

Sigh. I often have 'discussions' with my partner about this issue. He would happily throw out anything which has gone past the best before date. Best before and use by get confused here too. Which I suspect the stores know - and benefit from.

William Kendall said...

Not really a problem for me, as milk doesn't last long enough for me to worry about the best before date anyway.

Conniecrafter said...

They just had this on the news here in the U.S. a couple days ago and I have always gone by how does it smell, look, or feel. You can tell when things have gone bad and I don't throw things away just because of a date. I do go by those dates when buying them in the store though, if I am going to buy something I want it to last more than a day, so I will make sure the dates are at least a week out.

Tom said...

..most things last longer that the label warnings.

Ananka said...

I usually use my nose and if it looks bad and mouldy then in the food bin it goes. Lots of things last well beyond the date anyway.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Great post!
I am all for standard labels.
Milk, a day after sell by, it will upset my sensitive system. If can food hisses when opened, I toss and bleach the area.

Rose said...

This was a great post.

Bill said...

If it's past the use by date, it's usually still good. Never had a problem eating those kind of items.

Christine said...

Best before doesn't mean bad after, I do use certain items past best before dates.

J.P. Alexander said...

Siempre trato de nos desperdiciar alimentos y respetar la fecha de caducidad. Te mando un beso.

Practical Parsimony said...

Any milk bought at Walmart is not going to last as long as milk at Publix. They mishandle milk and all dairy products.

I drink milk about three weeks past its date. It is fine. If it starts to turn, I put chocolate in it and drink it any way!

It is not a mystery what the labels mean. Some people are too afraid of eating something rotten or unhealthy.
26 дек. 2017 г. · Several bacteria can produce toxins in meat that wouldn't necessarily taste bad if they haven't been stored properly that could cause “food poisoning." How can people get food poisoning? Doesn't the food they eat taste .What can I do if I ate something that tasted weird to avoid food

Can you get food poisoning from tasting a food?
The same rule applies to chicken, turkey, and seafood. Why It's a Mistake: You can't taste, smell, or see the germs that cause food poisoning. Tasting only a tiny amount can make you very sick.

Don't trust taste for bad food. Trust taste to see if you want to add this ingredient to you sandwich, salad, or meal.

Margaret D said...

Good article.
Here in this house we use common sense.

Iris Flavia said...

We even have it on salt. Salt!!!! Dry rice and noodles. And I bet there are people dumb enough to toss it.
When my nose tells me it´s still OK, my stomach never says differently!

Teresa said...

Me parece muy interesante tu reportaje de hoy. Gracias y besos.

Valerie-Jael said...

I never throw things away without checking if they are really 'past it'. Most things are okay even past the best by date. Valerie

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I buy half and half (light cream) for my coffee (quarts). I have found if unopened, it can last for two months past the use by date. However, once open, I have to use it within three days or it starts to go "blinky." I only throw food away if it smells bad, OR the can lid is raised and shows it is no longer sealed properly. Glad you shared this with us. Seems common sense has flown out the window, at least here in the states.

Jo said...

We don't throw anything out just because of a Best Before date, it's scandalous that so much food is wasted because of them so the supermarkets are doing the right thing by doing away with them.

eileeninmd said...

We tend to use some things past the dates.
Great information, thanks for sharing.
Take care, enjoy your day!

Barwitzki said...

Most foods last longer than the packaging says. Common sense helps us here.
In the case of fresh produce, however, we should definitely pay attention to the shelf life information.
I don't buy that much and have no problems in my own area...

DVArtist said...

Great post. We waist nothing in this house hold.

Sue said...

It's a minefield isn't it! My son throws anything approaching a 'sell by' date whereas my husband would happily give it a month over. Luckily we are able to buy our fresh food as we need it. Some of the tins at the back of the cupboard however.... 😂

Giorgio said...

Actually it we were to throw out less food, we would dissipate less energy (I am talking about the energy needed for processing and packaging).
That's really an interesting post! Great job!

R's Rue said...

Very interesting.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

In the past, I have been guilty of not checking the dates carefully enough on canned or boxed pantry items. It was quite a surprise to find a few that were several years past the stamped date. Now, I am careful to rotate pantry items and put the closer expiration dates up front. It's a bit harder with fruits and vegetables, which is why some quick breads and soups are usually the result.

Susan Zarzycki said...

You have hit the nail on the head with this article! My husband and I constantly disagree about when food should be discarded.

Divers and Sundry said...

It's so hard to tell if "best by" means anything at all *sigh*

Jeanie said...

I'll use a bit past the use date and certainly by the sale date. But there are a few thing -- when it's time to go, it's time to go! Mold and stinky? Out it goes!

Chatty Crone said...

I agree we can look and check if it is bad!

Mary Kirkland said...

As long as it still tastes and smells ok, I will eat it.

Carla from The River said...

Thank You for sharing this. I heard on the Radio News that discussion was happening regarding "use by this date".

Lorrie said...

I think that consistency is needed in labeling. However, for myself, I trust my instincts and rarely consult the dates on packaged items. The only time I do it is when I go through our emergency food supplies. I pull out everything and replace it with fresher items about once a year. Using common sense is so needed.

baili said...

dear Jan i have worked in a pharmaceutical for more the two years and i witnessed that actual expiry dates are replaced with new ones on same medicines .it kept me puzzled and bothered for long i left the job .can't say about canned food but i will not prefer it specially living in my own homeland