East, West, Fresh is the Best: Inaccurate “best-by” dates are leading to food waste

Written by Kiran Bengard
 · August 22, 2023

The food industry is full of confusing and even misleading labels. Every time I go to the grocery store, I am bombarded with false notions of health foods and all-natural flavorings. While I enjoy it when my food is “made with real fruit” and “fat-free,” I’d be lying if I said I knew with absolute clarity what it all meant. When I read a label on my food I’d like to believe it at face value. Expiration dates are no exception — but in this case, the confusion can lead to a very serious problem: food waste.

The Problem of Food Waste

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that a surprising 20% of food waste in the United States is the result of food labeling confusion. Keep in mind that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that between 30-40% of the total food supply is wasted each year, so 20% of food waste is a considerable amount of the total food supply. Not only are people wasting billions of pounds of food, but throwing away food is costing about $161 billion each year in the US. Most of that food is ending up in landfills where it rots, produces methane, and contributes to global warming. 

The Pitfalls of Federal Regulations

This massive loss of food and money is not all on consumers by any means (although they do have some responsibility). Some of this issue boils down to federal regulatory shortcomings. Except for baby formula, there are no national laws that require manufacturers to use food product dating. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) both recommend using “best-by” dates, there is no universal food label in the US. Manufacturers are not required to use one label, so consumers must use their best judgment to interpret when their food expires. It is thought that “best-by” dates best ease consumers’ confusion about whether or not their food needs to be thrown away. However, “best-by” dates are not a purchase or safety date. They are a food quality date, indicating when a product will be of the highest quality and taste. Thus, the recommended label is not telling us when to throw away our food. It is telling us when our food will be at its peak taste and quality. 

photo credit: U.S. PIRG

Keeping Your Food Fresh

We all go into our fridges and find items that we have simply forgotten that we have purchased. I’ll usually take a quick glance at the expiration date, not even checking to see whether it’s a “best-by,” “use-by,” or “sell-by” date. Without even fully understanding the date, I’ll make a judgment call on whether to throw it away or not. The truth is that it’s hard to keep track of all the labels and what they mean. However, just because a product has gone beyond its “best-by” date does not necessarily mean people can no longer consume it. In many cases, people can still eat food if there are no indicators of spoilage. It’s good to look out for bulging, foam, rust, rotten smells, cloudiness, moldiness, and changes in color and consistency as those can all be indicators that your food has gone bad. Physiological, chemical, or biological changes tend to be indicators that your food might need to be thrown away.

If foods pass their expiration date, but show no signs of spoilage, you can take different approaches depending on the food. Some should be tossed, some should be more carefully examined, and some can typically be eaten. For example, once it passes its “best-by” date, baby formula should be thrown away. Vinegar, honey, vanilla or other extracts, sugar, salt, corn syrup, molasses, white flour, mustard, beans, and many other foods can typically be eaten past their “best-by” date if properly stored. Eggs, fresh fruit, and meat should be more carefully examined and handled with more caution past their “best-by” date. The FSIS has an extensive list that explains how long certain foods can be refrigerated and frozen before they spoil or become dangerous to eat. 

photo credit: ello on unsplash

If you do have to discard your food, try to compost as much as possible. You can compost most vegetables, fruits, and cooked foods, but you should not compost oils, grease, and raw meats. California even requires every city, county, and special district to offer organic waste collection services to all residents.

Manufacturers Control the Labeling

Since there are no federal requirements for expiration dates, consumers have to put their faith in manufacturers. At times, manufacturers purposefully underestimate shelf lives so that consumers have to purchase more of their products. Estimates suggest that manufacturers decrease the labeled shelf life to 20-30% less than the true shelf life. That is not to say that all expiration dates are a lie. Manufacturers want to be competitive with other companies and ensure that their product is better than others on the market. They also want consumers to keep purchasing their products and optimize their profit margins. All of this is to say that federal regulations are not the only reason that expiration dates are not the most accurate deadline for when food should not be eaten. Expiration dates are influenced by market factors and that should be kept in mind. 

California’s Labeling Solution

In California, there is a proposed law, titled AB 660, that would require manufacturers, processors, and retailers to employ standardized labels. Specifically, AB 660 would mandate the use of “best if used by” labels to convey ideal freshness and quality and “use by” dates to indicate when a product is no longer safe for human consumption. In addition, the law would prohibit “sell by” dates as those are mostly only beneficial to retailers. If approved by the state legislature and signed by Governor Newsom, AB 660 will go into effect on January 1, 2025. While AB 660 will help ease issues in California, proponents claim that it will make it difficult to import and export food products across state lines. For this reason, federal laws regarding expiration dates are still essential for minimizing the confusion over labels.

Even if we start seeing more legislation that standardizes “best-by” dates, outreach is still needed to educate consumers on the meanings of food labels. Not only that, but as consumers, we have to be aware of what labels are being used on the products we buy — which will ultimately save money and prevent food waste. In addition, proper food storage can help to extend shelf life as much as possible. Keep your refrigerator at 40°F or below to ensure that your items are not spoiling early. Moreover, refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours to prevent rapid bacterial growth.

In Conclusion

When over 30 million people live in food-insecure households in the US, we should all be trying to not let food go to waste over labeling confusion. I am guilty of not being cautious about letting my food go bad, not taking the proper measures to ensure freshness, and taking expiration dates at face value. “Best-by” and other food quality dates are ambiguous. Sometimes food can go bad before its “best-by” date and other times it can last far longer. “Best-by” labels are not designed to convey safety, so cut your food some slack and just ensure you find no signs of spoilage. Food waste may seem inevitable due to how quickly some items expire. However, education, proper storage practices, and a degree of leeway regarding expiration dates can prevent food waste and save us all money.

Editor’s note: For handy tips on storing your food to prolong its lifetime, check out Acterra’s curated Food Storage Guide.

Kiran Bengard

Sign Up for our Newsletters

Keep in touch with Acterra! Make sure you find out about our latest events and announcements.