As more people worldwide learn about food waste, “best before” labels are being revisited and looked at closely by food waist advocacy groups. Since the 1970s, manufacturers have used the “best before” labels to estimate when food will be at its freshest.
Unlike “use by” labels, which are labelled on perishable foods like meat and dairy, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety, this may cause people to throw away food that is still good to eat.
“They see these dates and think it’s bad, they can’t eat it, so they throw it away,” said Patty Apple, a manager at Food Shift, an Alameda, California, nonprofit that collects and uses imperfect or expired foods.
To fix the problem, major U.K. stores like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, and Marks & Spencer recently took off “best before” labels from prepackaged fruits and vegetables.
By the end of this year, the European Union is likely to announce changes to its labelling laws. It is considering getting rid of “best before” labels altogether.
Eliminate Best Before Labels
There is no similar movement in the U.S. to get rid of “best before” labels. But there is growing support for standardizing the language on date labels to help educate buyers about food waste.
This includes a push from big grocery stores and food companies, as well as legislation in Congress that has support from both parties.
Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste, said, “I do think that support for this has grown a lot.”
The United Nations says that 17% of the world’s food is wasted every year, and most of that comes from individual households. ReFED says that up to 35% of the food in the U.S. goes to waste.
This wastes a lot of energy, like the water, land, and labour that are used to make the food, and it also causes more greenhouse gas emissions when the food ends up in landfills.
There are many reasons why food is wasted, like serving sizes that are too big or customers who won’t buy imperfect food. But ReFED thinks that “best before” labels cause people to throw away 7% of U.S. food, or 4 million tons per year.
In the 1970s, manufacturers put dates on a lot of their products to reassure customers that they were still fresh. There are no rules about them at the federal level, so manufacturers can decide when they think their products will taste best. In the U.S., only baby formula has to have a “use by” date.
50 different date labels
Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates about 80% of U.S. food, now recommends that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods. This is because surveys have shown that consumers understand these phrases.
But the effort is voluntary, and labels still say different things, like “sell by,” “enjoy by,” and “freshest before.” The University of Maryland found that U.S. grocery stores use at least 50 different date labels and that customers are often confused.
“Most people think that you can’t eat something if it says “sell by,” “best by,” or “expiration.” “That’s not true,” said Richard Lipsit, who owns a store in Pleasanton, California, called Grocery Outlet that sells food at a discount.
Lipsit said that milk is safe to drink up to a week after its “use by” date. Gunders said that canned foods and many other packaged foods could be eaten safely for years after their “best before” date. The FDA says that if you want to know if food is safe to eat, look for changes in colour, consistency, or feel.
“Our bodies are very good at telling when food has gone bad and is no longer safe to eat,” Gunders said. “We no longer believe in those senses, but we do believe in these dates.”
Some grocery stores in the U.K. actively tell people to use their senses. In January, Morrisons changed the “use by” dates on most of its store-brand milk to “best before” dates. Another grocery store, Co-op, did the same thing to its store-brand yogurts.
Throw away more food
Some shoppers like this change. Ellie Spanswick is a social media marketer in Falmouth, England. When she can, she buys fruits, vegetables, eggs, and other food at farm stands and local shops.
She said that the food didn’t have labels, but it was easy to see that it was fresh.
“Least of all the last thing we should do is throw away more food and money because a label says it’s no longer good to eat,” Spanswick said.
Not everyone agrees, though. Ana Wetrov, who lives in London and runs a home improvement business with her husband, is worried that staff might not know which items should be taken off the shelves if they don’t have labels.
She recently bought a pineapple. When she cut into it, she saw that the middle was rotting.
“These packages have had dates on them for about 20 years. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Wetrov said.
Some U.S. chains, like Walmart, have changed the labels on their store brands to say “best if used by” and “use by.” Big manufacturers like General Mills and Dole, which are members of the Consumer Brands Association, also encourage their members to use these labels.
Katie Denis, who is in charge of communications for the association, said, “Uniformity makes it much easier for our companies to make products and keep prices low.”
In the absence of a federal policy, the states have passed their own laws, which has caused food companies and grocery stores a lot of trouble.
Illegal to give food away
Emily Lieb, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at the Harvard Law School, says that shellfish and dairy must have “sell by” dates in Florida and Nevada, and eggs must have “best by” or “use by” date labels in Arizona.
Some companies, like Unilever, are trying to get rid of the confusion by supporting a bill in Congress that would standardize U.S. dating labels and make it so that food could be given to rescue groups even after its quality date.
Lieb said that at least 20 states have laws that make it illegal to sell or give away food after the date on the label.
Nonprofit organizations like Food Shift, which trains chefs using rescued food, could benefit from clearer rules about labelling and donations. Apple said that it even makes treats for dogs out of overripe bananas, uses chicken fat, and spent grain from a brewery.
Apple said, “We definitely need to pay more attention to small things like changing expiration dates because even though it’s a small part of the food waste problem as a whole, it can make a big difference.”