FDA Backs ‘Best If Used By’ as Unofficial Standard for Expiration Dates
These dates still aren’t regulated, but everyone seems to be agreeing on a single system.
Dealing with food waste and foodborne illness are two massive concerns — but often times, they find themselves intertwined. As much as people don’t want to throw food away unnecessarily, food that’s been sitting around too long can be a cause of illness. As a result, perfectly edible food can be thrown away out of caution. One way to consider safety is to look at a product’s expiration date — but these dates are confusing, in part because they aren’t standardized… or at least they weren’t. But, unofficially, that’s starting to change.
In 2017, two major trade groups — the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Market Institute — advised their members to pare down to just two labels: “Best if Used By” and “Use By.” The former is simply meant as an indication of quality, and the latter is reserved for foods that could pose a genuine health risk. Now, as part of its continued fight against food waste, the FDA has announced its support of this scheme, both to consumers and the food industry at large. It’s worth noting that the FDA still won’t be regulating these dates — the system is still optional — but the FDA is hoping to nudge everyone further into line.
“Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of food waste in the home,” the FDA wrote on its site. “To help dispel this confusion, the FDA is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardize the use of the term ‘Best if Used By’ on its packaged-food labeling if the date is simply related to optimal quality — not safety. Studies have shown that this best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.”
“We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as the industry aligns on this ‘Best if Used By’ terminology,” Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, added. “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”
Okay, but in a practical sense, what does “Best if Used By” mean? “According to Kevin Smith, Senior Advisor for Food Safety in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the ‘Best if Used By’ labels you see on packaged foods relate to the quality of the product, but that predicting when a food will no longer be of adequate quality for consumption is not an exact science,” the FDA continues. “Smith advises consumers to routinely examine foods in their kitchen cabinets or pantry that are past their ‘Best if Used By’ date to determine if the quality is sufficient for use. If the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them.”
Granted, it’s still vague advice, but if you could always tell when food was bad just by looking at it, then foodborne illness wouldn’t be such a major issue. That said, if you still have concerns about understanding when your food should be thrown away, the FDA includes more advice on its website.