Written by: Ellen Essman, Senior Research Associate
Are you perplexed by what “Sell By,” “Use By,” “Best If Used By,” and similar terms mean on your packaged foods? If the date has passed, should throw the food out, or take your chances with it? You are not alone in wondering about the meaning of dates and other terms printed on our food packages. Under most circumstances, food manufacturers are not required to include date labels and terms on packaged foods, so when they do include such labels, there are no official guidelines to follow. As a result, we have the current voluntary patchwork of various confusing terms. On May 23, 2019, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) took a step toward alleviating the uncertainty surrounding date labels. FDA released a letter addressed to the “Food Industry” at large. In the letter, FDA said that it “strongly supports” the use of the term “Best If Used By” when the “date is simply related to optimal quality—not safety.”
In its letter, FDA cites confusion over terms on date labels as a contributor to food waste in the United States. People don’t know what the dates mean, or they think the date means the food is expired or not safe to eat, and so they throw the food out. The range of different phrases on date labels only adds to the confusion. FDA says around 20% of food waste by consumers can be attributed to unclear date labels.
As was mentioned above, the food industry is largely on their own in terms of choosing what kind of date language to include on their packaged food labels. (One exception is infant formula, which FDA requires to have a date label reading “Use By.”) Consequently, many of the date labels on packaged foods are not indicative of when a food is safe to eat. Instead, FDA says that “quality dates indicate the food manufacturer’s estimate of how long a product will retain its best quality. If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality after the quality date.” Therefore, FDA supports using “Best if Used By” as the standard to communicate to consumers when a packaged food product “will be at its best flavor and quality,” which does not necessarily mean that the food is unsafe to eat after that date.
Not a binding law or regulation
FDA’s recommendation for the food industry to use “Best if Used By” on packaged food when including a date label is just that: a recommendation. Food companies are not required to use the terminology on their packaged foods; with the exception of infant formula, no date label is required by federal law or regulation. However, FDA “strongly supports industry’s voluntary…efforts” to use “Best if Used By” to communicate food quality to consumers. Therefore, the letter to the Food Industry is not a mandate by FDA, but an endorsement and strong suggestion that the industry use “Best if Used By” to indicate food quality.
Will “Use By” be the next recommended standard?
In its letter, FDA touches on another recommendation by grocery and food associations, but declines to endorse it. Grocery and food groups advocate for the use of the term “Use By” on date labels on perishable foods that may be unsafe to eat after the printed date. While FDA is not currently recommending the use of “Use By,” it is important to note that industry groups support using the term in this way. Perhaps after further safety studies, “Use By” will be the next recommendation on the horizon for FDA.
What does FDA hope to accomplish with this recommendation?
While FDA is not requiring the food industry to use the “Best if Used By” date label, the purpose of its recommendation is to encourage the majority of the industry to adopt the language as a standard. The hope is, that as “Best if Used By” is more widely used and the public becomes more educated on its meaning, the amount of confusion, and accordingly, the amount of food waste, will greatly decrease. To learn more about FDA’s decision to endorse “Best if Used By,” see their article here. For more information about food product dating, see USDA’s page here.