Sell By, Use By, Best Before—Ugh. New Initiative Tries To Reduce Label Confusion

Most people acknowledge that food expiration date labels are confusing. Best before, sell by, use by, enjoy by, expires on—there are lots of options, and some don't actually convey all that much information.

There actually are no rules on the books for expiration dates. In fact, the only food that is required to have one is infant formula.

The confusion comes, at least in part, from a lack of regulation. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is in charge of labeling, and there actually are no rules on the books for expiration dates. In fact, the only food that is required to have an expiration date, according to the FSIS website, is infant formula. So all those other labels you see? Purely optional, with no federal regulation detailing how they should be phrased. (The FSIS will, however, step in if those dates are proven to be false or misleading.)

Last week, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the two biggest trade groups for retailers and grocery producers, collaborated on a new initiative designed to fight some of that confusion. That initiative sets out guidelines for simplified, standardized expiration labels on food, funneling all the current choices into two options: “use by” and “best if used by.”

There’s a reason to have two: the former applies to items that will actively go bad, like dairy and meat, and become a health risk. But there are plenty of items that won’t exactly rot, like, say, dry goods and spices. But manufacturers still want the ability to tell consumers when that product is best, and alert them if the product is not at its peak. Cumin powder won’t ever really become a health risk, but without “best if used by,” consumers could purchase a years-old container, which is liable to be flavorless, and nobody wants that. Or, on the reverse end: a customer might look at a package of pasta and think, wow, I bought this last year, this must be bad. That package could end up adding to our already-overwhelming amount of food waste. But a “best if used by” label could allay fears and alert that customer that the pasta is still perfectly fine.

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This initiative is not in any way binding or law. The FSIS hasn’t changed its stance on regulation, and whether a manufacturer uses these new labeling conventions, or the old ones, or none at all—that’s still completely voluntary. But these marketing groups have a lot of power, and there’s no real reason why any producer should avoid using the new terminology.

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Sell By, Use By, Best Before—Ugh. New Initiative Tries To Reduce Label Confusion