The supermarket aisle is a complicated journey through a dense forest of “best by,” “use by,” “sell by,” and other “bys.” This confusing labeling system currently in use in the U.S. needs an overhaul, says the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA wants more clarity in food labels to prevent people from prematurely tossing products and to reduce the mountains of food that goes to waste each year. To this end, the FDA is asking the industry to streamline food labels into one standard one: “Best If Used By”.
“Lots of people decide to be safe rather than sorry,” says Elaine Schrumpf with OSU Extension service. “So they interpret those dates as a date by which they should no longer eat it.” However, Schrumpf says not all products need to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly, according to NBC affiliate 16KMTR.
Basically, according to the FDA, we have to get everyone on the same page. “If the phrase is the same on all foods,” Shrumpf says, “then there can be a more general education of the public to say, it’s still safe to eat this is when it’s best quality so try to use it as close to this date as you can but you don’t need to throw it away.”
Here are some of the issues
Phrases like “Best By”, “Enjoy By,” and “Fresh Through” generally indicate when a food’s quality would decline—not when it becomes unsafe to eat. The FDA says it is better to stick “Best If Used By.”
Most people don’t realize this, but manufacturers are required to put “use by” dates only on infant formula products, according to the FDA. All other labellings of dates is at the manufacturer’s discretion.
Dates used in today’s food labels are at best, a guess. Food manufacturers find it difficult to pinpoint how long food will stay good. Milk is a good example. Variables can include how long cases of milk sit on a loading dock to how it is stored in the home.
Foods like fresh meat and dairy are more vulnerable to spoilage in part because their moisture allows the small amounts of bacteria to multiply more quickly.
The food waste problem is growing
Imagine, if you will, going to the supermarket and buying three bags of groceries. On the way out you throw one of those bags in the trash. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But that is how much an average family in the U.S. wastes every time they go to the grocery store.
According to one estimate, 160 billion pounds of food is thrown into landfills across the nation every year. But by creating a standard, and meaningful system for expiration dates, we could divert nearly 400,000 tons of food from landfills each year and save more than 1.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and 192 billion gallons of water. That is quite a savings all the way around.