Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star Tribune reports date labels on food don’t quite represent the peril that people think.
For years, foodmakers have put sell-by and use-by dates on a number of products. But some food experts and environmentalists have argued that people are throwing out perfectly good food because of those dates. And now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed.
The department’s food safety division released new industry guidance that recommends that manufacturers use the phrase “best if used by” rather than “sell by” or “use by” when putting dates on food.
Infant formula is the only food product required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to date its products to ensure the nutrient levels match what is on the nutrition label.
No other products require dates, but manufacturers put them on labels to signal to retailers and consumers when products taste best. The USDA estimates that nearly one-third of all food is thrown away uneaten, something the agency is trying to reduce through better policies or simple packaging changes.
“Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown,” the USDA wrote in its guidance. “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best if Used By’ date.”
Because the U.S. has no uniform date labeling standard, a variety of terms are used. A “sell-by” date is not a safety issue but is meant to help a retailer know how long to display a produce for sale. A “use-by” date is also not a safety issue, but is the last date recommended to consumers for peak quality.
This guidance is part of the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030, an initiative announced last year.
The USDA says food can be consumed after its “best if used by” date so long as there are no signs of spoilage.
“Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten,” wrote the USDA.
The exception is pathogenic bacteria, which is undetectable. If an unlucky consumer purchases a food product carrying this pathogen, however, the expiration date won’t protect them regardless.