Food Safety: Confusion with Use-by and Sell-by Dates

From the LA Times,, an except:

Sell by, use by, best by. Most consumers use the dates stamped on foods to decide what to toss out — and they are often discarding food that’s good to eat, according to a report…

Those dates are manufacturers’ suggestions for when an item is at its peak, or efforts to help stores manage their inventory, and not indications of food safety, the report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic says.

More than 90% of Americans say they use date stamps to decide whether to discard food, the report notes.

“I don’t know of any data that consuming a product beyond the date has caused illness,” said Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota who has studied shelf life for decades.

There are several ways that products can be contaminated and can cause illness, including poor handling on farms or in factories and stores, and improper treatment by consumers.

Wednesday’s report follows one about food waste from the NRDC showing that 40% of our food is discarded, resulting in losses of $165 billion a year….People are throwing away food because they believe it’s not safe, she said. And they also may be eating unsafe food because they put too much trust in those date labels.

While there is no research of the exact role those dates play in the 160 billion pounds of annual food waste in the U.S., estimates based on British studies suggest it could be $275 to $455 worth of food per household per year, the report said.

Business suffers, too, as millions of dollars of food is discarded before it’s sold based on those dates, the report said. There is a “dizzying” array of state laws regarding date stamps on food, including no regulations in nine states, Gunders said….

The NRDC report calls for three major changes:

—Putting sell-by dates — meant for businesses — into code so they are invisible to consumers.

—Establishing a uniform date labeling system that differentiates dates for safety from those for quality.

—Increasing the use of safe-handling instructions.

… Among the possibilities being considered is a two-date system that’s clearly marked for the retailer and the consumer.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said she planned to reintroduce the Freshness Disclosure Act, which she had previously proposed, to establish a consistent food-dating system. She said in a statement Wednesday that consumers now were “left in the lurch, forced to decipher the differences between ‘sell-by’ and ‘best if used by,’ and too often food is either thrown out prematurely, or families wind up consuming dangerous or spoiled food. The status quo is really quite absurd.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.