Food Date Labels: Consumer Safeguard, or Confusing Waste of Food and Money?


I used to fancy myself some sort of rogue, daredevil eater, flaunting food safety recommendations and cheating a certain death by consuming a wide variety of foods well after the expiration dates printed on the packaging. Turns out I'll have to satisfy my appetite for extreme risk-taking elsewhere (by eating rice, for instance), since food date labels don't actually indicate the safety of food (or even tell you when it will spoil).

Today, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released "The Dating Game: How a confusing food date labeling system in the United States leads to food waste," an authoritative analysis of U.S. food date labeling. The exceptionally comprehensive report can be summarized as follows: The U.S. food date labeling system is terrible. Date labels are very poorly regulated, ill-defined and inconsistently applied. And contrary to popular belief, they don't actually indicate when food will spoil, or provide any meaningful measure of food safety. This creates undue consumer confusion and results in a significant amount of entirely avoidable food waste -- all without increasing consumer safety or improving the overall quality of our food supply.

Food Date Labeling in the U.S.: A Case Study of How Not to Regulate

The report includes a fascinating (and pull-your-hair-out infuriating) history of food date labeling in the U.S., describing how in the 1970s, when date labeling began to be adopted by food manufacturers on a wide scale, Congress attempted to develop uniform standards for "open code dating" (i.e., labels that include actual dates clearly visible to consumers, as opposed to "closed code dating," which uses symbols or numerical codes that can only be deciphered by producers and retailers). As early as 1975, the Government Accountability Office warned that failure to develop a national system of open code dating would "add to confusion, because as open dating is used on more products, it would continue letting each manufacturer, retailer, or State choose its own dating system."

Yet nearly 40 years later, no such system has been developed -- in part (get ready to don your indignation hat), because of early opposition by the National Association of Food Chains, which argued that the food industry was already spending millions on labeling, and that new requirements would increase costs and inhibit adoption of "further voluntary, progressive programs in the future."

Bottom line, Congress has the ability to regulate date labels, but hasn't done so. Technically, FDA and USDA currently have the authority to regulate these labels, but they do very little. In the absence of clear federal regulation, individual states have adopted their own date label requirements, which vary wildly. In fact, nine states don't require date labels on any foods at all; others require labels only for specific foods. My personal favorite is New Hampshire, which mandates date labeling only for cream and pre-wrapped sandwiches.

The result of this regulatory fiasco is that food date labeling is inconsistent, poorly defined and, to a great extent, left to the discretion of manufacturers.

Food Safety?

Paradoxically, the existing food date labeling scheme may actually decrease public safety due to consumers' over-reliance on these dates as sound indicators of food safety. Because in reality, they're not; in fact, the most important factor consumers should use to judge food safety is not the total duration of a food's storage, but the amount of time the food has spent in the "danger zone" (40 - 120 degrees Fahrenheit). Think of it this way -- if you leave pork chops in the trunk of your car for an entire sweltering summer day, you shouldn't rely on the use-by label to provide an accurate indication of the meat's safety -- and if you did, you'd increase your risk of foodborne illness.

Food Labels and Food Waste

There's currently a food waste crisis in the U.S. -- and yes, I write "crisis" because this is a stop-the-presses / all-hands-on-deck / house-on-fire sort of situation; we waste 40 percent of the food we produce, some 160 billion pounds annually. This wasted food is worth an estimated $165 billion per year -- and that's not even counting disposal costs, or the water, energy, land and other resources squandered during food production, processing and distribution.

Among the factors contributing to this problem is that consumers don't understand the meaning of food date labels, which leads them to prematurely discard usable food. As noted in the Harvard report, a 2007 USDA study revealed that only 44 percent of consumers knew the meaning of "sell by" (25 percent mistakenly believed it indicates the last day a product can be consumed). A report by the Food Marketing Institute indicated that 91 percent of consumers trashed food after the sell-by date at least occasionally, and a whopping 25 percent always did so.

While the impact of inadequate date labels on U.S. food waste has yet to be measured precisely, research has been conducted abroad; according to a 2011 report published by WRAP, a UK nonprofit that works to reduce food waste, confusion about food date labels caused an estimated 20 percent of avoidable household food waste.

Eliminating Chaos: Prudent Date Label Recommendations

The report provides the following recommendations:

Make "sell by" dates invisible to the consumer.

Sell by dates are intended for stock control; they're not indicators of food quality or food safety. But consumers often misinterpret these dates. The solution: move to a closed-dating system for stock control (i.e., use codes to tell retailers when to rotate stock rather than dates that confuse consumers).

Establish a uniform consumer-facing dating system.

• Establish standard, clear language for both quality based and safety-based date labels.
• Include "freeze by" dates and freezing information where applicable.
• Discontinue the use of quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products. (If a food is shelf-stable, there's no good reason to impose an arbitrary "best by" date, though a "best within x days of opening" label could still be applied.)
• Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages.
• Employ more transparent methods for selecting dates. (That is, don't base dates on best guesses, but on sound science.)

Increase the use of safe handling instructions and "smart labels."

From a food safety perspective, food handling is more important than duration of storage. Labels should therefore include instructions for safe handling. "Smart labels" like the "time-temperature integrator" (TTI), which changes color if a food is kept too warm for too long, could also be adopted.

The role of industry, government and consumers:

Food industry actors -- should convert to closed dating for sell by information; establish a standardized, comprehensible consumer-facing dating system; sell or donate near-expiration or expired foods; and educate consumers about safe food handling and the meaning of expiration dates.

Government -- including Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures and state agencies should create uniform food date labeling regulations to standardize labels, reduce confusion and make the application of labels less random.

Consumers and consumer-facing agencies and organizations -- should educate themselves and their constituents about the meaning of date labels, safe food handling practices and how to tell when food can safely be consumed.

I'm hoping (against tremendous odds) that these recommendations are implemented by all the actors involved. Because given the ridiculous inconsistency and confusion surrounding the existing date labeling system and the house-on-fire nature of the food waste crisis, we can't afford to maintain the status quo.

A version of this post originally appeared on Ecocentric blog.