Report Questions Food Expiration Dates

September 27, 2013

"Sell by," "best by," and "use by" labels are confusing consumers.

U.S. consumers are misinterpreting food date labels, according to a new report from Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report estimates that more than 90% of U.S. consumers may be throwing out food products too early because they are confused by food date labels such as “sell by,” “use by”, and “best before.”

The problem stems from a wide variation in state and federal laws regarding these labels, and from consumer confusion as to what each label means.

Though not commonly understood, “sell by” dates are a tool for stock control, and “best before” and “use by” dates are meant for consumers, but they usually do not indicate an accurate date of spoilage.

“We need a standardized, common-sense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent, and piecemeal system we have today,” says Emily Broad Leib, author of the report and director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. FDA does not have a streamlined, regulated dating system for any foods except infant formula.

In the meantime, the report offers some tips for manufacturers: make “sell by” dates invisible to consumers; establish an easier-to-understand date label system that clearly differentiates these labels for consumers; and embrace “smart labels” that use technology to produce additional information on product safety.

For further reading, visit www.fixfooddates.com.

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