There are so many labels on the food and consumables we buy today, it’s easy to forget to check them all. Having established the nutritional information and ingredients, it’s important to check expiration dates. This is the only way to be sure that fresh food is at its best, and that frozen or canned foods will last a reasonable time. After all it’s not just what’s in food that is important, but also how long it will last, or how soon you need to eat it.
Having said this, it isn’t always possible to check expiration dates, because there is no Federal law that requires food dating – even though there are Federal regulations that govern labeling that gives other information including ingredients, nutrition facts, possible allergens, and now food must be handled. Even though many states require some sort of date labels (including Georgia), nine (including New York) don’t and there is no consistency between those that do.
Because labeling of expiration dates is not regulated in a standardized manner, consumers are often misled into believing food should be discarded because of dates that state “use by,” “enjoy by,” “sell by,” best before,” and so on.
In 2013 the Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a comprehensive report on food expiration dates and concluded that these were the cause of high, rising rates of waste in the US. Titled The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, it called on federal authorities to improve date labeling policies and practices to decrease consumer confusion.
While date labeling was historically designed to provide indicators of freshness, generally these dates simply represent manufacturer suggestions for when food is at peak quality. However, many consumers interpret these dates as a declaration of when the food is unsafe to eat – and so it gets discarded.
A History of US Date Labeling
The NRDC report states that US date labeling was historically “a piecemeal response to consumer interest in date labels,” and it started with the idea of “open dating.”
Prior to the 1970s, food producers, manufacturers and retailers used a system of “closed dating,” where undecipherable numerical codes and symbols enabled them to manage inventory and stock rotation. They knew when to “sell by” or when the food would be at its best, but this information wasn’t shared with consumers.
By 1973 ten states had adopted legislation that required open dating (which displayed the sell by and other dates openly) on certain types of food, even though it was widely recognized that this would not assure the microbiological safety of food. Even though Congress considered the issue of date labeling and expiration dates, and various members proposed a uniform, nation-wide code dating system, legislation was never introduced.
Retailers (specifically supermarkets and food chains) initially opposed open dating, believing it would cause consumers to cherry pick the “newest” foods on the shelves, in response to consumer demand, they began to use open dates voluntarily.
More than two decades later, in 1999, the issue was raised in Congress again when the National Uniform Food Safety Labeling Act was introduced. This required sell by and use by dates, to ensure quality, “nutrient availability,” and food safety. But it didn’t pass. At least five similar bills were proposed between 2001 and 2009, but they weren’t passed either. All had been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee where they were stalled.
The best solution, the report stated, would be a uniform federal date labeling system that requires manufacturers, packers, or distributors to choose a “freshness date” that would indicate that the nutrient quality of food would tally with information given on the nutrition facts panel. A safety-based date like “safe if used by” would be preferable to “best if used by,” it said. Foods exempt from nutritional labeling (including raw fruits and veg and products served at restaurants and schools) would be exempt.
Even though the FDA regulates food labels, date labeling remains “entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.” The only exception to this is the “use by” date labeling of infant formula, for safety reasons.
Official Guidelines to the Terminology Used on Expiration Labels
The US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service provides a generic guide to food product dating on its website. For instance:
- Open dating is primarily to help retailers determine the shelf life of products, but it can help purchasers identify when the product is at its best quality. It is NOT a safety date.
- Use-by dates indicate when the product is at peak quality. It is NOT a safety date.
- Sell-by dates indicate how long the store should display a product. Products should be purchased before this date and should be eaten or cooked prior to this date, or frozen.
- Best if Used By or Before dates are not purchase or safety dates; they are dates when the food will have the best flavor or quality.
Georgia Requirements of Date Labeling
Georgia is one of the states that does require some sort of date labeling on food and consumables packaging. It is also one of only two states that regulates the expiration date of pre-wrapped sandwiches.
While most food products on retail shelves in Georgia have expiration dates, these are guidelines for quality and freshness, and not indicators for food safety. However a handful of food products are strictly regulated, specifically infant formula, pre-packaged sandwiches, eggs, shucked oysters and other fresh shellfish, milk, and food labeled “keep refrigerated” that could be potentially hazardous. It is unlawful to sell these foods if they are past the expiration date on the label, and these food products are routinely checked by inspectors.
In 2012 Georgia amended its date labeling regulations, adding a definition for “expiration date.” This definition is now “synonymous with” a number of terms: the pull date, best before date, best-by date, use-by-date, and the sell-by-date, and refers to the last date on which the food products specified above can be sold.