The push for increased transparency in food and beverage labeling continues to pick up speed following a recent request by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reduce the variety of terms used in tandem with expiration dates, USA Today reported. The lack of standardization for food product dating has been a point of confusion for many consumers, as manufacturing companies often use interchangeable phrases like "sell by," "best by," "use by" and "fresh through" on their products' packaging. While no regulatory action is yet planned, federal regulators have publicly urged food makers to be more consistent with their terms to prevent consumers from disposing of products prematurely.
Expiration dates and their associated phrases are typically used to indicate when the quality of a food or beverage item starts to decline, not when it becomes unsafe to consume. The uncertainty surrounding food product dating largely stems from a lack of Federal regulations, as manufacturers are only required to furnish this information for infant formulas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even meat, poultry and egg products include these dates on a voluntary basis, though they must be labeled in a manner that is "truthful and not misleading and in compliance with Food Safety and Inspection Service regulations." While there are state-level regulations that govern the inclusion of product dating, such as Montana's "sell by" requirement for milk, the absence of industry-wide guidelines leads some consumers to throw away products out of fear of food spoilage.
How Prevalent is Food Waste?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, roughly one-third of all food produced in the world gets lost or wasted, accounting for approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year. The total cost of this waste amounts to a projected $680 billion in industrialized nations and $310 billion in developing countries. Fruits and vegetables (including roots and tubers) experience the highest rates of waste and loss out of all food categories. Some of the FAO's quantitative figures include:
- 40-50% of root crops, fruits and vegetables
- 35% of fish
- 30% of grains and cereals
- 20% of oil seeds, meat and dairy
In terms of per capita waste, it's estimated that European and North American consumers dispose of 95 to 155 kilograms per year, compared to just 6 to 11 kgs in sub-Saharan Africa and most regions in Asia. What's more, close to 40% of all food waste and loss in industrialized countries occur at the retail and consumer levels, often due to "quality standards that over-emphasize appearance," per the FAO. While confusing expiration dates likely play a minor role in global food waste, some nonprofit organizations believe that addressing the issue could help consumers make more informed decisions.
Breaking Down Common U.S. Food Dating Terms
Manufacturers generally determine quality dates by considering the amount of time and the temperature at which food items are stored during processing and distribution, the specific characteristics of the product and the type of packaging used. For example, canned foods typically last longer than those sold in modified atmosphere packaging, though the quality of any perishable product is dependent on the integrity of its container. Although many consumers believe product dating terms are used interchangeable, each phrase tends to serve a specific function, such as:
- "Best if used by/before" indicates when a food or beverage item will be of optimal quality and flavor.
- "Sell by" informs retailers about the length of time they should display a product for sale.
- "Use by" provides a recommendation for consumers about when a product will begin to degrade in quality.
- "Freeze by" indicates when a food item should be frozen to preserve its peak quality and condition
While these terms may sound like they represent health and safety recommendations, nearly all food product dates are only meant for quality assurance purposes. Manufacturers are not legally required to include safety dates, so many opt out to avoid possible liability-related litigation.
The FDA's Recommended Verbiage
Significantly reducing waste that results from consumers tossing out wholesome food will likely be a difficult undertaking, as it may require advocacy groups and government agencies to design effective public education and awareness campaigns. The resources needed for this undertaking may be substantial, which is why the FDA and USDA have instead focused on making meaningful changes at the manufacturing level.
The FSIS released non-binding guidance for food producers and retailers back in 2016, which asked companies to utilize a "best if used by" date instead of the other variations. This recommendation was reinforced by the FDA's recent push to reduce food waste and eliminate consumer confusion, as research has shown that this phrase effectively conveys the intended meaning, per the FSIS. Ultimately, it's up to consumers to inspect food items for signs of spillage, but a lack of movement on this issue could motivate federal regulators to take more aggressive action.