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Those Confusing Food Expiration Labels Are Getting an Upgrade

Almost every food you buy in the supermarket has a date stamped somewhere on its package. People are often confused by it’s significance. There is no standard phrasing of the text preceding the date: “sell by”, “use by”, “best by” and many others are used.

Does food go bad once the date is reached? Is this a marketing ploy to get us to frequently purchase more of a product? Or, is there some other explanation?

As strange as it may seem, there is no federal regulation around expiration dates. The only exception is baby formula. The FDA allows for voluntary “Open Dating”, a calendar date applied to a food product by the manufacturer or retailer. The calendar date provides consumers with information on the estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality. It also helps supermarket staff determine how long to display the product for sale.

There are two issues at play here:

  • The first is food safety. Is there a date after which consumption of a food may poise a health risk?
  • The second is a one of quality. Some foods simply taste better closer to their manufacturing date.

In order to simplify things, the food industry’s largest trade groups have agreed on a standard that will voluntarily go into effect in mid-2018. There will be only 2 date statements:

  1. “Best If Used By <date>” – a quality indicator, meaning the product may not taste as expected after this date; it will still be safe to consume. This is NOT an expiration date.
  2. “Use By <date>” will appear on highly perishable foods. This phrase will be used only on products where food safety will be a concern at a certain point. When you see a product with this label, it should be discarded after that date.

Despite the above guidelines, we always recommend the sniff test. If something smells off, or doesn’t look right, better be safe than sorry – chuck it.