A PRINTED date appearing on a food package is often perceived by consumers as the absolute end-all final date that a food item is fit for consumption.
In fact, according to a recently released study from the Harvard Law School Food Law & Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America" — many food items that are past the printed date are prematurely thrown out but may still be perfectly safe to eat.
Specifically, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 40% of the food American consumers purchase in a given year ends up in the trash — an equivalent of $165 billion worth of food.
Food waste not only costs the consumer hard-earned cash, but it also comes at the expense of the nation's natural resources (Feedstuffs, Sept. 16) and represents a significant loss to food retailers.
By the 1970s, purchases of packaged food were on the rise, and so was consumer concern for food freshness.
At the time, food manufacturers used a closed dating system of symbols or numerical codes to manage inventory, but that system was cryptic to consumers. As a result, due to consumers' concerns, many grocery stores voluntarily adopted an open dating system — the month/date/year format seen on food packages today.
Over the years, state governments have passed their own laws, but a uniform federal dating regulation — although attempted many times — has failed to pass, and no government agency presently has been given explicit regulatory authority.
On the whole, the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have the power to regulate misleading food labels.
Nevertheless, FDA does not require food firms to place "expired by," "use by" or "best before" dates on food products; instead, the agency leaves it to the discretion of the food manufacturer (except for infant formula, which is subject to specific FDA date labeling requirements).
If the food manufacturer chooses to use a date, then FDA allows a closed dating system of both coded letters and numbers. If a calendar date is selected, then it must contain the month, day and year, along with language explaining the date.
Similarly, USDA, in general, does not require date labels, except on poultry products and eggs, which require a "pack date." The agency does, however, have technical requirements to guide producers of USDA-regulated foods on how to display dates if the manufacturer voluntarily does so or is required by state law to display the date.
According to the Harvard/NRDC study, 41 states plus Washington, D.C., require date labels on at least some type of food item (Map). This patchwork of state regulations only contributes to consumer confusion and the rising trend of throwing out food items before they actually expire.
Industry date labels
Without a uniform date label standard, the food industry and trade associations must individually decide on the form and content of date labels.
Although not legally defined by the government, a variety of terms may be found on food packages today.
As a general rule, the "production" or "pack" date indicates when the food product was manufactured or placed in its final packaging.
The "sell by" date was designed to inform retailers how long a product can stay on the shelf in order to give customers a reasonable time to consume the product after it is purchased.
Other date labels were aimed at informing the consumer. The "best if used by" date indicates an estimated date at which the product will start to lose quality. The "use by" date indicates the last date recommended for the use of the product at its peak quality. A "freeze by" date informs consumers that quality can be maintained if the product is frozen by the listed date.
No matter the words the food companies choose, the date label on food does not indicate freshness; it's merely a manufacturer's suggestion of when the food is at peak quality. If a food product is past the stamp date, it does not actually mean the product is unsafe to consume. It is left to the consumer's discretion whether the product is still fit for eating.
The Harvard/NRDC report notes that label dates may create a false sense of security. While the date labels are indicators of freshness and quality, consumers often mistakenly believe that they are indicators of food safety.
Using a printed date as the only signal of safe food could not only result in prematurely throwing out safe food but also could cause consumers to ignore other relevant risk factors of unsafe food such as temperature or other signs of spoilage.
For food manufacturers and retailers, misreading the open dating system can result in a high percentage of unsalable food. In 2001, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Food Marketing Institute reported that approximately $900 million worth of inventory was removed from the U.S. supply chain due to expiration dates.
The Harvard/NRDC report recommends a standardized food date label system that supports clear communication to consumers regarding the meaning of the dates.
In addition, the report suggests that sell-by dates should be hidden from consumers and reverted back to the closed dating system in order to communicate business to business the proper sell-by date for a product.
For consumers, it urges establishing a uniform, standardized dating system with clear language for both safety and quality. Eliminating the misunderstanding surrounding food date labeling systems would encourage consumers to actively investigate food products instead of relying on an industry-approved label.
Ultimately, food safety still depends on knowledge of proper handling and storage of the food products present in the household.
The Harvard/NRDC research concluded that food product labels should include safe handling instructions that remind consumers about the importance of storage temperatures, cross-contamination, proper cooking techniques and safe handling.