Expiration Dates On Food Products Create Confusion & Unnecessary Waste


Expiration Dates On Food Products Create Confusion & Unnecessary Waste

Among the most useful items of information on a food product label is the expiration date.  We look to the expiration date on a food label to see if the product has “gone bad” or otherwise is past the point of safe consumption.

Unfortunately, there is no national regulation of expiration dates or national uniform standards.  The Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates packaged foods and drugs, only requires an expiration date on infant formula. According to the FDA, information about food expiration “is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.”  See http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm210073.htm The FDA has the power to establish a uniform national date labeling system to protect consumers from misleading information but, to date, has decided not to take action.

According to Anne Marie Mohan, Editor of Greener Package, despite efforts dating back to the early 1970s, many legislative efforts in the U.S. Congress to establish requirements for food dating have failed to gain enough momentum to become law. http://www.packworld.com/sustainability/waste-reduction/consumer-confusion-over-food-expiration-dates-causes-massive-food  This failure to establish national standards results in massive amounts of food waste because of inaccuracies or misunderstandings of food expiration dates. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study conducted last year, 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is a shocking figure. Some estimates place this food waste at approximately 160 billion pounds of food a year. This represents not only a huge waste of food but a massive waste of the resources necessary to produce such food and to get it to the consumer. See http://www.nrdc.org/food/wasted-food.asp

Last month the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the NRDC issued a joint report that analyzes the vague configuration of federal and state laws for food date labels. It is a very worthwhile report to read.  See http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/09/breaking-down-the-dating-game-report-on-food-expiration-dates.html?ref=excerpt_readmore There are differences, as discussed in this report, in date labels such as “sell by,” “enjoy by,” “best before,” and “use by.”

Some of these labels are meant to communicate to businesses instead of consumers. For example, “sell by” does not communicate that the food is unsafe on that date, but rather it’s a notice to a grocer as to the last date to keep the item on the shelf in order for it to remain good when purchased by the consumer.

“Use by” or “best before”, while intended for consumers, does not necessarily indicate a spoil date or a date that the food is unsafe.  Instead they typically indicate that the food is not at peak quality. As the Harvard and NRDC study notes, consumers have no way of knowing how those dates are calculated since manufacturers determine these food expiration dates at their sole discretion and own methods.

While consumers need to use their own best judgement, it appears that shockingly large amounts of safe and good food is being thrown away by consumers because of confusing food expiration dates.  We will never really know until there is a national uniform and standard system that addresses this crucial piece of food label information.


Kirk Schroder / Food Advocate / foodadvocate@ellwoodthompsons.com