Legislation announced Wednesday by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) aims to put an end to consumer uncertainty about whether or not their food is safe to eat. With the Food Date Labeling Act, they have proposed standardized language for retail packaging: “Best if used by” to indicate peak quality for shelf-stable foods, and “expires on” for riskier foods like raw meat, fish and eggs. According to food policy advocates, the changes will save millions of tons of food from going needlessly into the garbage.
“For a while, we’ve been really focused on food safety. There was a sense of, ‘When in doubt, throw it out,'” said Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. “I think now we’ve woken up to this landscape of 40 percent of the food we produce in the U.S. gets thrown away.”
So how did we get to here, where a consumer needs a linguistics degree to parse the minuscule differences between “Best by” and “Best before?” Consumers didn’t need expiration dates at the beginning of the 20th century, when they were more likely to live near farms and buy everything fresh. As the distance from our food sources has grown wider, there was a greater concern about food safety. In the ’70s, each grocery store had a complicated system of symbols and codes to tell employees when a product would go bad.
“Even the store clerks couldn’t read their codes,” said Gale Prince, a food safety consultant and former director of corporate regulatory affairs for Kroger. So the industry voluntarily moved towards “open” dating, which made that information visible on the package in plain language.
Except that language wasn’t specified on a national level, leaving states to develop their own regulations. And thanks to some fanciful brand copy on product packaging, it ended up not being so plain after all. Some labels were meant to indicate the date after which food could no longer be safely eaten, while others displayed the date after which the product would no longer be as good-tasting — but would certainly still be edible. Sell-by dates were meant for store staff to circulate fresher products onto the shelves, but many consumers treat them as expiration dates.
“Their first thought was giving the date to the consumer as a piece of information, but we failed to educate the consumer on what those dates mean,” said Prince.
All of this meant more food in the trash. Among the figures cited in the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s 2013 report on date labeling: 91 percent of consumers reported occasionally throwing food out after its “sell by” date; fewer than half of the consumers surveyed could correctly describe the meaning of “sell by” and “use by” dates; each year a family of four wastes an average of $1,560 on food that is thrown away.
“One of the most common arguments people seem to have at home is about whether or not food should be thrown out just because the date on the label has passed. It’s time to settle that argument, end the confusion and stop throwing away perfectly good food,” Rep. Pingree said in a press release.
The Food Date Labeling Act will standardize labels to “Best if used by,” a phrase that Lieb says surveyed consumers clearly understood as indicating that a product may not be totally fresh, but was still safe to eat (“Expires on” was the clearest language for perishables). The act will also prohibit states from preventing stores or manufacturers from donating products for which the quality period has passed, which could put more past-date (but perfectly safe) boxes of pasta and cans of vegetables in food pantries and homeless shelters around the country. General Mills is among the food manufacturers supporting the legislation.
If the bill passes, companies would have two years to comply with the new labeling requirements. In the meantime, a small crop of websites like Still Tasty can help customers figure out exactly how long their food will stay safe to eat.
And if you’re leery about the dates on your food, Prince recommends treating your ktichen like a grocery store clerk would: “Periodically, take a look at your pantry,” he said, “And if you’ve got some products that are in the back of your pantry that have been there for a period of time, maybe you should pull those to the front and use them.”