If you search "best if used by" on Google, you'll find a plethora of results, some with "experts" detailing why "sell by" and "best by" dates mean nothing, and others with concerned consumers asking "can I use x product if it's past the sell by/best by date?" One result even involves a particularly concerned teenager with a box of Tuna Helper asking, "Could I still make it without giving food poisoning to my entire family?"
This is a question a lot of people have: what do those expiration dates on food really mean? Are they actually expiration dates, or just guidelines for when our food will taste the best?
USDA specifically says there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the U.S., and product dating is not generally required by federal regulations. It gives the following definition of food dating on its website: "Open Dating" on a food product is a date stamped on a product's package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date." It also details what each date should mean:
- 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.
The question is, if the system is so confusing to consumers, and even retailers and manufacturers, why doesn't something better exist?
That is where Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) comes in. With the support of environmentalists, food bank officials, and other food industry professionals, Blumenthal introduced new legislation aimed at establishing a uniform federal food dating system.
Blumenthal agrees that the mix of current labels “fail to reflect what consumers think they mean,” due to multiple state laws and regulations on food dating. He also notes that the current dating system results in massive amounts of food waste, citing studies indicating that more than 160 billion pounds of still usable food is thrown away in the U.S. each year.
Blumenthal’s proposed legislation would require food industry manufacturers and retailers that use a date on labels to use the term “best if used by,” which is the term consumers most easily understand when looking to know how long food will taste good, according to a study by Walmart. The legislation would also require an “expires on” date on the labels of high-risk foods, such as deli meats and hot dogs, to clearly indicate when consumers should not eat foods. Federal food regulators would also be required to create a specific list of “high-risk foods” that shouldn’t be consumed after a certain date.
Legislation similar to Blumenthal’s has already been submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives, but Blumenthal says both bills have an uphill battle in a gridlocked Congress despite food industry support.