Food & DrinkConfused by the date on packaged food labels?

Confused by the date on packaged food labels?


Between the food industry and consumers, Americans are wasting nearly a third of our food, approximately $161 billion each year.

“Imagine this: You go to your favorite supermarket and come out with three bags full of groceries. Before getting in your car, you throw one of those bags in the trash. Sounds absurd, right? Of course yes. But basically this is how food is wasted every day in our country,” says Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner of the Food Policy and Response program at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates on packaged food labels is believed to contribute to 20 percent of household food waste. This is not surprising when you consider the variety of terms used in date labels, for example “use by”, “sell by”, “expires by”, and so on. 

To help clear up the confusion, the FDA is supporting efforts by the food industry to standardize the use of the phrase “Best before” on packaged food labels, when the date simply refers to optimum quality and not to food safety. Studies have shown that this is the best way to communicate to consumers that they do not need to discard these products after the indicated date, as long as they are stored properly. “We expect the variety of date labels to narrow over time as the industry embraces “best before” terminology,” says Yiannas. “Several food producers are already making this change.”

The FDA’s efforts are part of a White House initiative known as Winning on Reducing Food Waste . Part of this collaboration between the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) includes educating consumers on methods to reduce food loss and waste, and how to do it safely without risking contracting diseases from consuming decomposed products. 

Most labeled dates are not based on an exact science

Manufacturers usually place dates on labels based on their own criteria and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the deadline until which they can expect food to retain the desired quality and flavor. The main exception to this general rule is infant formula products. These products must bear a “Use By” label. This is the date through which the manufacturer confirms that the product contains at least a trace amount of each nutrient listed on the product label and that the quality of the product will be acceptable. 

Date labels are generally not required on packaged foods. Although manufacturers are prohibited from including false or misleading information on a label, they are not required to obtain agency approval for quality date labels—which they use voluntarily—nor to clarify how they decided on the labels. dates that applied.  

According to Kevin Smith, senior advisor for food safety at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, “Best before” labels on packaged foods refer to the quality of the product. However, predicting when a food will no longer be of adequate quality for consumption is not an exact science.  

Smith advises consumers to frequently inspect foods in their kitchen cabinets or pantries that are past the “Best Before” date on the label to determine if their quality is sufficient for consumption. If the color, consistency or texture of the products has significantly changed, consumers should not use them. 

In addition, there are resources available online for consumers who have questions about shelf life for perishable foods, including meat, seafood, and dairy. On there are links to:

  • The FoodKeeper app, designed to promote greater understanding of food and beverage storage to maximize freshness and quality.
  • The Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart, part of the FDA’s Food Facts, provides information on which items should be refrigerated or frozen and for how long.

Waste Not: Tips on how to reduce food waste.

FDA is working with partners at the federal level and with other stakeholders to help consumers better understand the variety of steps they can take to reduce food waste. The FDA page on food waste and loss provides links to resources from the FDA, EPA, and USDA.

Other methods to waste less food include:

  • Refrigerate peeled or cut vegetables to maintain their freshness, quality, and safety.
  • The freezer is your friend; It is an excellent tool for storing various foods and preserving their quality until you are ready to eat them. 
  • Avoid buying in bulk and impulse purchases, especially for produce and dairy products that have a limited shelf life. 
  • When eating out, order smaller portions if you don’t have much of an appetite. Take your leftovers home and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours.

For more information, visit the FDA’s page on recommendations to avoid food waste.

“Reducing food waste is a shared responsibility, and consumers play a particularly important role,” says Yiannas. “FDA is committed to providing them with the information they need so they can make prudent and reasonable choices for their families. Food is too important to waste.”  

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