Sunday, April 26, 2015

Date Labels: What Do They Mean?

“Best by”, “expires by”, “sell by”, “use by”, and  “best before” are common date labels affixed to packaged foods. However, what these date labels mean is not very clear and have lead to consumers misunderstanding the purpose of the labels. The majority of consumers think date labels indicate when food is no longer safe but in reality the majority of date labels have nothing to do with the safety of the food. Instead, they indicate the manufacturers suggestion for when the food is no longer at its peak freshness or quality.

The misunderstanding of date labels has lead to more than 90 percent of Americans prematurely throwing away food. The report, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” authored by the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that this confusion has contributed to the 40% of uneaten food in the United States and an estimated $160 billion in food waste in the U.S. each year. 

In addition to the amount of safe and edible food wasted due to the confusion of date labels, many states prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date stated on the date labels. This prevents a large amount of  safe and edible food from being given away to food donation centers, which could be used to help feed the millions of food insecure and low-income people in the United States. 

What’s been done to regulate date labels? Not much. Currently, there is no federal law that requires uniform date labels. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have the authority to regulate food date labels but they have not taken any steps to regulate these misleading and confusing date labels on food products. 

Instead, date labels are currently regulated by states and every state has different laws for date labels on food products. For example, Alabama does not have any requirements for date labels, while Michigan has date label requirements for pre-packaged perishable foods, milk and other diary products. 

The Dating Game report recommends the establishment of a national uniform date labeling system. With the population and the amount of food insecure people increasing, a uniform system for date labels seems like a small requirement that could have a big impact on “feeding the world.”

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