“Sell By” Dates and Other Misleading Labels Cause Terrible Food Waste

by Carole Jackson>, Bottom Line Health


Open your refrigerator or pantry, and pick up a few random jars, bottles, cans or cartons of food—peanut butter, orange juice, cereal, soup or whatever. Most of them probably are stamped with a date that says something like “sell by” or “enjoy by.” And if you’re like many people, you throw out the food once that date has passed—because you assume that it’s no longer safe to consume.

But are those assumptions correct? Typically not. In fact, in many cases those dates are arbitrary and meaningless! This makes it all the more aggravating that “date label confusion” is a significant contributor to the staggering amount of food waste that occurs in this country.

Food waste is bad for our wallets, costing the average American family of four $1,365 to $2,275 per year. What’s more, we’re suffering a lot of needless anxiety, worrying that what we eat is going to make us sick. A new report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic explains the problem and offers some solutions…


In the US, we waste an appalling 160 billion pounds of food per year. If only one-third of what’s thrown away somehow could be distributed to the 15% of Americans who don’t have enough food, no one would go hungry.

Much of that waste occurs when food is tossed unnecessarily by consumers who are confused by the food date labeling system. Yet it’s no wonder they’re confused—because terms such as “sell by” and “best before” have no official, standardized definitions. Is the food no longer fit to eat…or do manufacturers just want you to throw out stuff that’s been in your pantry for a while so that you’ll buy more of their products? Though people often assume that the food cannot be safely consumed after the stamped date, most food label dates indicate only peak freshness and optimal flavor,not an end to any safe window of opportunity for consumption.

The inconsistency problem: Although the FDA and the USDA have the authority to regulate various types of food labeling, they generally do not regulate date-labeling practices, instead leaving this to food manufacturers, states or even local governments. The result is wild inconsistency. For instance, a carton of eggs sold in South Carolina can be stamped with a date that’s up to 45 days after the carton is packed, while a carton of eggs sold in Alaska is marked with a date that’s not more than 24 days after packing.

The authors of the new Harvard report point out that it is impossible to provide actual definitions for all the date label terms currently in use because meanings are not legally defined. They vary by state, and there is no consensus about how to apply them to different categories of food products. However, the terms generally can loosely be interpreted as…

• “Production” or “pack” date—the date on which the food product was manufactured or placed in its final packaging.

• “Sell by” date or “expiration date”—information to retailers for stock control, leaving a reasonable amount of shelf life for the consumer after purchase.

• “Best if used by” date—typically an estimate of a date after which food will no longer be at its highest quality.

• “Use by” date—also typically a manufacturer’s indication of the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

• “Freeze by” date—a reminder that quality can be maintained much longer by freezing a product.

• “Enjoy by” date—essentially useless to consumers.

Is there any term being used that indicates when a product is no longer safe to consume? No! And that’s the whole point of the report.

The authors had several recommendations for the food industry that could help cut back on needless waste, including standardizing the labeling system and improving the use of safe-handling instructions so consumers know which foods should be refrigerated or frozen and how long foods last in different conditions.

But until such industry changes are made, consumers can use common sense to waste not, want not. Obviously, you shouldn’t eat or drink anything that looks, smells or tastes like it has gone bad. For instance, toss anything with visible mold or discoloration, an “off” odor, changes in texture or flavor or marred packaging (such as a broken seal on a bottle or a misshapen or corroded lid on a can). Other than that, though…

• Remember that the “sell by” date is purely for grocers’ inventory-management systems. If you’re in the store and want to compare dates to select the freshest items for your cart, that’s fine, as is opting not to buy foods that are past the “sell by” date. But once a food is in your home, don’t misinterpret the “sell by” date as an “eat or throw away by” date.

• With nonperishable items (canned goods, spices, honey) and packaged foods (cereals, crackers), safety isn’t really an issue, the researchers said. However, these foods may taste less flavorful after a long time in storage.

• Perishable foods—such as unfrozen shellfish, fish, meat or poultry, and eggs and dairy products—can spoil and make you ill. However, there’s so much variability from food to food that it’s impossible to give a blanket number of days after the “use by” date within which all products should be consumed. For more information on particular types of foods, check a reputable resource such as Nutrition.gov.

• Be sure to store each food as the label directs—for instance, by refrigerating after opening, if so instructed. That’s the best way to avoid food waste.

Source: Emily Broad Leib, JD, director, Food Law and Policy Division, Harvard Law School, Boston. She is coauthor of a report titled “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” copublished with The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental group.

More on Food-Labeling Problems