Rethinking Date Labels: A Rational Approach to Food Consumption

In the modern era of heightened awareness about sustainability and food waste, one crucial yet often overlooked aspect is the role of date labels on food products. These labels, typically indicating “best before,” “sell by,” or “use by” dates, have become ingrained in consumer behavior as indicators of freshness and safety. However, adhering strictly to these labels may contribute to unnecessary waste and environmental strain. In this blog post, we delve into the rationale behind date labels and why we should reconsider their significance in our approach to food consumption.

Date labels serve multiple purposes, primarily to guide consumers and retailers on the quality and safety of food products. “Best before” dates suggest the period during which the product is at its peak quality, ensuring optimal taste and texture. “Sell by” dates are aimed at retailers, indicating the date by which the product should be sold to ensure freshness. “Use by” dates, on the other hand, are more concerned with food safety, signaling the last date recommended for consumption.

While date labels offer guidance, their rigid adherence often leads to unnecessary food waste. Consumers tend to discard products once they reach or pass the labeled date, regardless of their actual condition. This mindset contributes significantly to the staggering amount of food wasted globally each year.

Confusion surrounding date labels serves as a significant contributor to both food waste and hunger, highlighting a systemic issue in the United States. Unlike many other regulatory measures, date labels lack federal standardization, resulting in a hodgepodge of state laws and individual company policies. This disjointed approach leaves consumers, businesses, and food banks grappling with a perplexing array of terms such as “use by,” “best if used by,” “sell by,” and “best before,” with little clarity on the fundamental question: is this food safe for consumption?

The reality is that food doesn’t suddenly spoil the moment the date on the label passes. Various factors, such as storage conditions, packaging, and the type of food itself, influence its shelf life and safety. For instance, canned goods and certain dry goods can remain safe for consumption long after their labeled date, provided they are stored properly.

Addressing this pressing issue, the Food Date Labeling Act proposes a much-needed overhaul by streamlining and standardizing date labels at the federal level. Recently, on Thursday, March 21, PIRG and Replate convened a panel of food waste experts from esteemed institutions such as Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Food Recovery Network, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Their insightful discussion dissected the limitations of current date labeling practices, illuminated the inherent problems within the status quo, and outlined how the Food Date Labeling Act offers a viable solution to these challenges. This legislation holds profound significance, as it seeks to enhance clarity and safety in our food system, ultimately making a tangible impact on both food waste reduction and alleviating hunger.

Instead of relying solely on date labels, a more pragmatic approach involves using sensory evaluation to determine the freshness and safety of food. Visual inspection, smell, and taste are invaluable tools in assessing whether a product is still suitable for consumption. This approach empowers consumers to make informed decisions rather than blindly following arbitrary dates.

By adopting a less rigid stance towards date labels, we can make significant strides in reducing food waste and promoting sustainability. Consumers can extend the lifespan of food products by properly storing them and employing sensory evaluation techniques. Moreover, retailers and policymakers can play a role by revising labeling practices to provide clearer guidance without encouraging unnecessary waste.

Date labels serve a purpose in guiding consumers and retailers, but they should not dictate our approach to food consumption. By understanding the limitations of date labels and embracing a more rational approach based on sensory evaluation and proper storage practices, we can minimize food waste and contribute to a more sustainable future. Let’s rethink date labels and prioritize practicality and sustainability in our food choices.

Our friends over at Natural Choice Foods have emerged as pioneers in challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding date labels and the perception of food quality. With a steadfast commitment to combating food waste, Natural Choice Foods devised a groundbreaking business model aimed at dispelling the misconception that expired food is inherently “bad.” A significant milestone for the company, 2019, marked the attainment of USDA and FDA certification for their cutting-edge food repacking facility. This certification positioned Natural Choice Foods as one of the few entities in the secondary market capable of repackaging, rebranding, and reselling refrigerated and frozen food items while upholding the highest standards of safety and quality. This state-of-the-art facility not only enables the company to extend the lifespan of food products but also safeguards brand integrity throughout the repackaging process, ensuring that consumers can trust the products they purchase.