Food Expiration Date Labels Are Confusing, Uninformative: NRDC Study

09/18/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2013

"The date labeling system in the U.S. is not a system at all. It is a mess," says Dana Gunder, food and agriculture staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the co-author of a new report about food expiration dates.

The NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic's report, titled "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America" [pdf], details consumer confusion surrounding "best by," "use by" and "best before" dates that adorn so many food products in the U.S. The confusion over when to eat or toss food leads to both unnecessary food waste and unsafe food consumption practices, the report argues.

According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, confusion over dates leads 9 out of 10 Americans to throw away food needlessly.

The report takes a firm stance:

The lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state and local regulatory variability in date labeling rules, has led to a proliferation of diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices in the food industry. Open dates can come in a dizzying variety of forms, none of which are strictly defined or regulated at the federal level. This haphazard system is not serving its purpose well.

Gunder believes that the current dating system is a key, low-hanging fruit in reducing food waste, since people are throwing away food based on dates printed on the package. However, terms like "sell by" don't actually indicate that there is anything wrong with the product; it is purely for use in retail stock rotation and not an indicator of freshness.

In addition to food waste, confusion about food's expiration date also leads to safety issues, the report says.

Ted Labuza, professor of Food Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, echoes the sentiment of the study. On a call with reporters, Labuza estimated that approximately 80 percent of dates printed on food packaging are approximate rather than exact dates as to when food should no longer be consumed. He said that over-reliance on these dates can prompt further food safety concerns. People should focus more on how they store food and less on how soon it should be used, he argued. It isn't true that past-date food is always unsafe to consume and, likewise, pre-date food isn't always safe to consume.

The NRDC offers several recommendations to remedy the current system, such as establishing labels that indicate both quality- and safety-based dates. The authors suggest that current "sell by" dates should be made invisible to customers and labels should instead offer more information about handling food safely.

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