Nutrition-wise blog

Simplifying food date labels

By Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. February 24, 2017

Sell by, best if used by, expires on… You’re likely familiar with these food date labels. Food manufacturers label their products, mostly on a voluntary basis, primarily to help grocers know how long they can display foods. Consumers also can use these dates as quality indicators.

Unfortunately, however, most people automatically interpret them as “toss by” dates, contributing to a growing problem of unnecessary food waste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that food waste is between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. This estimate corresponded to about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. In addition, rotting food in landfills is the third largest source of the greenhouse gas methane in the U.S.

Ahead of possible new federal standards, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have proposed streamlining the labels. Instead of 10 food date labels, these trade associations suggest using just two, including:

  • Best if used by. This label describes product quality. The product might not taste or perform as expected if used after this date, but it’s safe to use or consume.
  • Use by. This label can be used on highly perishable foods and/or foods that have a food safety concern over time. These products should be consumed by the date listed on the package — and disposed of after that date.

The groups are encouraging retailers and manufacturers to adopt this system by the middle of 2018.

Simplified guidance to reduce confusion and waste is welcome. My advice? Follow food safety guidelines, such as keeping cold foods cold, and buy nutritious food that you will eat within a reasonable amount of time.

To your health,


Feb. 24, 2017