Sell by Dates

February 21, 2017 in Food Economics, Foodland, General by Joyce Bunderson

On Wednesday, February 15, 2017, the Food and Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Associations (GMA), the two largest trade groups for the grocery industry, announced that they’ve adopted standardized, voluntary regulations to clear up what product date labels mean. The target date for the change is by July 2018. As far as I’m concerned this is a step in the right direction; as presently there ten separate label phrases that are confusing the general public. They are certainly confusing to me (Nine years of college and three decades of continuing education in nutrition doesn’t help). Let’s face it; almost all of us have become somewhat immune to the “use by date.” We’ve, certainly discovered that milk, if kept refrigerated can easily last past the “use by date.”

The agreement means that companies will be encouraged to use only two phrases: “Use By” and “Best if Used By.” We’ll only have to remember two concepts.

  • Use By – is a safety designation, letting us know that a perishable food is no longer good.
  • Best if Used By – is a quality It is the manufacturer letting us know when they think it should be consumed for peak flavor.

I say, that’s going to be much easier! Simplifying is often a good move. Let’s just visit why the present “Use by date” for one, has come to be so confusing.

  • Only infant formula, in which the nutrients decline (not because it spoils) is federally regulated by this phrase.
  • Almost never legally distinguished from “best before” or even “sell by”
  • Some products don’t have any words at all to explain the date. No way to know whether the date is telling the store to sell it by then, or telling you it is at its best quality until then.
  • It is usually used to indicate the “manufacturer suggestion for peak quality” of the product, not the food’s safety.
  • Different methods could have been used to determine this date; lab tests; consumer satisfaction assessments….. There’s no way for you to tell which method was used.
  • Even the states vary. Twenty states restrict stores from selling after these dates; 30 states don’t.
  • Some non-perishable foods have a date even though they’ll be fine long after. The NRDC suggests that we think of a box of mac-n-cheese.

In addition to the guesswork that we’ve all been in for over forty years, there’s the environmental impact of prematurely tossed groceries; it’s a “significant use of landfill space and source of green house gas emissions.” It is estimated that standardized date labeling can save 398,000 tons of waste per year. Of course, this is just a small fraction of the food waste, but it’s a wonderful first step; to my thinking. Another step already in the works is the Food Donation Act of 2017, which was introduced a week ago.

The NRDC, (Natural Resources Defense Council) a non-profit international environmental advocacy group, clear back in 2013 was writing about trying to fix this problem. They estimated that 91 percent of consumers have mistakenly thrown away past-date food, when the label only signals the manufacturer’s guess at its peak quality. The NRDC is running a campaign called “Save the Food.”

If you’re interested in helping the planet by working on the subject of saving wasted food, you can find some resources on the Further with Food site; which is from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – the association for Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists. Whether you want to be an advocate in this effort or not, all of us can share in the steps that the Food and Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Associations have taken. And as I have written in the past, we can all take individual steps to improve in our food management.

If you are a bemused consumer, still puzzled about what the dates mean, don’t wait around until the voluntary standards come into effect in July 2018, nor wait for the possible passage of the Food Donation Act of 2017. Just pitch in to help by not throwing expired foods away too soon. If there is a place to take them that is working to “save the food” take them there, and even volunteer. For your own budget, consider organizing your shelves to use the oldest dates first.