Food Labeling Dating Dilemma

A study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic investigates the impact of consumer confusion over the dates on food labels. Produced in cooperation with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America” was released in September 2013.

Label dating began with the good intention of quantifying a product’s freshness. However, lacking any coordinated oversight and with little regulation, dates on food labels frequently lead to confusion and unnecessary waste. A simple date stamp or a date preceded by “expires,” “sell by,” “use by,” or “best before” are among the many commonly used phrases. But, regardless of which phrase is used, there is no uniform meaning.

Current federal oversight of food labels falls under the authority of 11 acts of Congress and is the responsibility of three different agencies: Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, 41 states require date labels on at least some food products and 20 states regulate certain food sales past label dates. A handful of local governments even regulate the use of food labels. The more confusion, the more likely it is that the consumer will simply throw out any food at or near whatever date appears on the package.

Some dates aren’t even meant for consumers. “Sell by” dates are simply a way of saying the producer wants that stock rotated off the shelf for maximum freshness. These “sell by” dates don’t mean that a product is unsafe to eat.

By the same token, a “use by” date provides no indication of whether a product is safe to eat. As the report states, “Overreliance on label dates results in food being wasted because of safety concerns that are not founded on actual risk. At the same time, such overreliance can also cause consumers to ignore more relevant factors affecting food safety.” The report cites processing failures, contamination after processing, and abuses in storage and handling as the main causes of microbiological hazards in food—factors that are largely independent of the age of the product. In most cases, food will look or smell bad enough to keep you from eating it before it is actually unsafe to eat.

Meanwhile, these dates might create a false sense of security and cause consumers to ignore basic food safety. More relevant than a product date is the amount of time food spends at temperatures between 40 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the danger zone where most microbes grow.

Food losses total an estimated 160 billion pounds per year in the United States. Food loss results when food is grown, processed, or made available for human consumption but never eaten. Food losses cost the average American family $2,275 per year. Per capita food loss has increased 50% in this country since 1974. Recent studies in the United Kingdom suggest that as much as 20% of avoidable food waste could be due to confusion about label dates. The most recent study for the U.S., which was conducted in 1987, suggested a comparable figure of 17%.

The report makes a series of recommendations for improvements to the existing food labeling system. These recommendations include:
• Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer.
• Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform dating system for use by consumers. Such a system should include clear language regarding both quality and safety.
• Provide clear and pertinent safe handling instructions on labels and access to additional information through QR codes, apps, websites, or hotlines.

The report has specific strategies to help the food industry, government, and consumer organizations create a more meaningful dating system. To read the full report, visit

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