If you’ve ever been scratching your head at the grocery store wondering what the difference is between labels like “sell by” and “best by” and “use by” and “best if used by” and “keep on using me until you use me up by” (okay, those are Bill Withers’ lyrics), you’re not alone – and more importantly, you’re not an idiot. Most of these different labels of food freshness aren’t intended for consumers – and furthermore, they aren’t regulated in any sort of way. Instead, food manufactures choose which label to use based on their needs. Often times, those needs are making sure their product tastes the way they want it to, not, as some people think, stating when a food is no longer safe to eat.
Some consumers may dismiss this issue as simply a debate over semantics, but it has larger repercussions: Misunderstanding food labels can cause people to throw out food that is perfectly acceptable to eat, which in turn contributes to America’s mind-bogglingly large food waste problem. And as the USDA pointed out back in 2015, some food items might be safe to eat for 12 to 18 months past their so-called “expiration date.”
The good news for consumers and food waste advocates alike is that a solution may finally be making its way to store shelves. As we wrote about in May of last year, congress had attempted to step in to resolve this problem, with legislation being proposed in both houses seeking to establish federal standards for food date labeling. And this past December, the USDA suggested that “Best if Used By” be the norm, at least on eggs, meat and dairy products. But in the end, the final answer (for the moment) appears to be coming from the food industry itself.
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According to NPR, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Market Institute, two major trade associations that encompass the bulk of the retail food industry, are advising their members to use only two labels: “Best if used by” and “Use by.” Though this language may still feel a bit cryptic, these two labels would come with distinct meanings, and once shoppers educate themselves on the implications, the new recommendations would hopefully eliminate some of the current confusion.
“Best if used by” would probably be the most common label, indicating that after the listed date the quality of the product may diminish, though it would still be safe to eat. Meanwhile, “Use by” would more specifically indicate foods that could become unsafe past the posted date. A spokesman for the GMA tossed out shucked raw oysters as an example of such a food.
These recommendations are still just that: recommendations. So if and when we’ll see food brands jump on board is hard to predict. However, the fact that this suggestion is coming from the industry itself seems promising – especially when reducing food waste is an issue that everyone should be able to get behind.