Researchers: Sell-By Date Confusion Leads to Billions of Pounds of Food Waste
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Researchers: Sell-By Date Confusion Leads to Billions of Pounds of Food Waste

April 15, 2016

Do you eat foods that are past the sell-by date? It's OK, we won't judge if you don't.

The vast majority of Americans – 90 percent -- throw out food that has reached its sell-by or use-by date because they are under the impression that food past this date is unsafe to eat. For most foods, however, that's not the case at all.

According to data from a team of researchers at the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, less than half of consumers can identify what sell-by labels mean and less than one quarter can identify what use-by labels mean.

This confusion is partly the reason why 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, resulting in 160 billion pounds of wasted food.

This food waste doesn't come cheap; the average American family of four says goodbye to between $1,560 and $2,275 in wasted food each year. This is basically the equivalent of taking money and dumping it in your garbage can.

So what do these labels mean?

Most of these labels are an indication of quality, not of safety. That means very few foods are actually unsafe to eat after a sell-by date. Exceptions are foods like deli meats and other prepared foods that might harbor bacteria after a certain date.

Harvard researchers say,

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) both have the power to regulate food labels. However, for the most part, neither agency regulates date labels on food products. Instead, date labels are governed by inconsistent state regulations and industry discretion. As a result the language used on date labels varies widely from state to state and food to food.

That's why the same gallon of milk could have different date codes depending on what state it is sold.

Using pasteurized milk, researchers illustrated this point in a five-minute documentary.

In the documentary, food scientist Don Schaffner said that since milk is pasteurized, it should not contain any bacteria. "The risks of drinking spoiled milk are virtually zero," he said. Spoiled milk might not be appealing to the nose or taste buds, there's no health risk in consuming it. The definition of spoiled is also up to individual taste preferences.

When it comes to the sell-by date on milk, dates vary tremendously from state to state. In Montana, for example, milk can't be sold or donated more than 12 days after pasteurization. The standard, however, is 21 to 24 days, meaning that milk – kept properly refrigerated – will still be good for at least another week and a half.

That's a lot of good milk that is going down the drain while 14 percent of Americans suffer from food insecurity.

The Harvard team is calling for a federal law that would standardize the use of date labels. Quality labels would be required to say, "best if used by." For the foods that have a safety risk associated with being eaten past a certain date, a separate "expires on" date should be used. The FDA and USDA should work together to publish a list of foods that have safety risks.

"Setting uniform, national standards for date labels will make it clear to consumers which foods need to be avoided past their dates and which can be safely eaten," say the group.

Without standardized labeling, consumers are generally left to use their best judgement as to when to toss a food product. A smartphone app from the USDA could help cut down on some of that guess work. Launched last year, the FoodKeeper app provides the shelf life of more than 400 different foods and includes information on how they can be safely prepared.

For more information about date labels visit