It is perhaps not surprising that a report on food waste in the UK connects consumer's misunderstanding of product date labels to over 20% of avoidable food waste.
Research on date labelling undertaken in the UK shows that 45-49% of consumers misunderstand the meaning of the date labels “best before” and “use by” (WRAP 2010). WRAP’s Household Food Waste Programme Manager, Andrew Parry, furthermore estimates that 1 million tonnes of food waste or over 20% of avoidable food waste in the UK is linked to date label confusion.
It's no wonder: food product dating, in the UK and the US, is incredibly confusing. The USDA lists the following product dating classifications:
- A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
- "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
This list doesn't really offer a consumer much information - for instance, if I "should buy the product before the sell-by date expires" how much time do I have to consume it? Doesn't "the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality" sound like products are OK to consume, if maybe a little shopworn after the date? The website specifically states that any dated food is safe to consume "if handled properly." The only specific advice offered by the USDA is that baby formula should be discarded after the use-by date.
I wish I could offer readers some reassurance on how to use the dates on any food, but with the exception of formula, it doesn't appear that any of the dates have any specific meaning to the consumer. A paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School Food Law and policy Clinic also suggests that reliance on dates can lead consumers to believe that a product is safe when it is not, for example, bagged salads are stamped with a use-by date, but also needs refrigeration to be safe. NRDC also correlates product date confusion with waste, and asks policymakers for a complete overhaul of product dating classifications. They suggest that sell by dates be hidden from the consumer, and that the other classifications be rephrased to ensure that consumers understand the food is still safe to eat even if it might not be at peak flavor. In short, food product dating has very little to do with consumers at all, almost nothing to do with food safety, and a lot to do with marketing and product rotation. That can of food you forgot at the back of your cupboard? No worries - unless it's your grandmother's cupboard, it's probably safe to eat.