The world of food labels is a confusing one. Here’s what you need to know about those dates.
We’ve all been there: You head to the grocery store and stock up on a ton of fresh produce and good-for-you snacks with the best of intentions. But then takeout ends up being the best and quickest option after a long ride or a long day at work, and you end up with a fridge full of food about to go bad.
If you’re like most people, trying to determine if your food is past its prime by looking at the date labels—best if used by, sell-by, use-by, freeze-by—can be a confusing web to untangle.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it supported the food industry’s effort to standardize the term “Best if Used By” on its packaging if the date referred to quality and freshness, not safety, says Julia McCarthy, a senior policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
This effort, McCarthy says, aims to prevent food waste and help consumers avoid confusion on whether their food is still “good.”
But relying on date labels to determine whether a food is “still good” is where things can get confusing. McCarthy weighs in on the various food labels and how best to understand them.
Without being too dramatic, there’s a general thought that if you eat a food after the date on the label, you’re headed for a foodborne illness disaster.
According to the FDA, there are a handful of commonly used phrases for date labels:
- A “Best If Used By/Before” date states when a product will have its best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long the product can be displayed for sale, which helps with inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date the product will be at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
- A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
“There is a hodgepodge of phrases that appear on food package labels, and the ‘Best If Used By’ is one that we know consumers understand best,” McCarthy says. “It indicates freshness, not food safety.”
When it comes to date labeling, there are no federal regulations, except for infant formula, which is labeled for food safety, McCarthy says. That means manufacturers can voluntarily label their packages to help consumers understand how long their products will be at peak quality or freshness.
“There are a variety of factors that affect food safety—including temperature, length of time [food] is in distribution, how long it’s in the store, how long it’s in your fridge—that it’s really hard for manufacturers to predict when, exactly, a food is no longer safe,” McCarthy says. “Usually you are the best person to tell that. Your nose is your best friend.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, some 30 percent of food is lost or wasted in stores or at home. A large part of that problem, McCarthy says, is confusion from the date labels on food.
“The real problem with [a term like expiration] is consumers don’t know if that means quality or safety,” she says. “And the answer is it’s neither. That’s [in part] because the industry is using [the terms] inconsistently.”
McCarthy says the effort by the FDA and the food industry to use “Best If Used By” across the board will hopefully lessen confusion among consumers and reduce food waste.
Okay, so does that mean you can eat food past these dates? In a word, yes.
The FDA states: “If the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident.”
McCarthy says there are simple ways to determine if you really do need to chuck that milk that’s been in your fridge for a couple of weeks. “Smell is a very good indicator of whether a product is still good,” she says.
You can also look for mold and texture—milk, for example, might be more solid or lumpy when it’s spoiled.
McCarthy might also do a quick taste test. “But most consumers don’t have as liberal an attitude as I do in tasting milk,” she says.
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In an effort to reduce food waste, McCarthy recommends avoiding buying perishable items in bulk, skipping the impulse buys at grocery stores, and freezing fruits and vegetables if you haven’t used them in a few days after purchase.
Use those frozen veggies in a soup or stew, and frozen fruit in a smoothie, she says.
As for those shelf-stable items we commonly use for long runs—gels, chews, waffles, sports drinks—use the date label as a guide but not an ultimatum.
“The dates on the packages are indicators of freshness, and you can consume these after the ‘Best If Used By’ date. Just smell or taste them and make a game-time decision,” McCarthy says.
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