"Best before", "sell by" and "use by"—what exactly do these labels mean?
Not much for consumers, according to the latest report about food date labels written by the experts at The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The report reveals that food labels do not indicate freshness and instead are suggestions by manufacturers for when the food is at peak quality. If food is past its expiration date, that does not necessarily mean that eating it will make you sick.
In a breakdown of what each food label means, phrases like "production" or "pack" date can indicate when the product was manufactured or put in final packaging. The label "sell by" is more important for retailers for stock control so that customers can expect a reasonable amount of shelf life after purchase. Labels like "best if used by" and "use by" are estimates on the date after which the food is no longer at peak quality. And "enjoy by" isn't really clearly defined. Even within one manufacturer's products, these phrases and their meanings can differ.
Misleading food date labels are a key factor that contributes to food waste in America, a problem that generates over 160 billion pounds of food waste each year.
Consumer demand for open dating of food products peaked in the 1970s as a way to determine foods' freshness, but since then no federal legislation has passed for a uniform, nationwide system for open code dating. As a result, various state and local laws have produced their own methods that differ in the label phrase, the meaning of the phrase and the methods used to determine the date labeled.
The report suggests that consumers reduce their dependence on food labels by developing other strategies to determine whether food is safe to eat. FMI's Foodkeeper Guide provides food safety and storage advice, and the USDA's Kitchen Companion Safe Food Handbook includes an illustrated guide to food safety.
Check out the video playlist above to watch Time Healthland's illustrated video guide to the real lengths of time food is safe to eat.