Ever wondered what information the terms “sell by” or “use by” are conveying on your meat, dairy or poultry products?  You are not alone.  In fact, you are so far in the mainstream that on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service released a new recommendation that food companies change those terms to “best if used by” to help alleviate consumer confusion.

Estimating that 30% to 40% of food is wasted or lost by retailers or consumers the USDA hopes to cut down on the amount of food that is tossed out each year based on assumptions made about the use of the terms “sell by” or “use by” or similar phrases that may give the mistaken impression that food has gone bad, when most foods are safe to eat after whatever date was conveyed under those labels if they are handled properly:

Safety After Date Passes

With an exception of infant formula (described below), if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident (Chill Refrigerate Promptly). Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten.

Microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can multiply and cause food to spoil. Viruses are not capable of growing in food and do not cause spoilage. There are two types of bacteria that can be found on food: pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illness, and spoilage bacteria, which cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant characteristics such as an undesirable taste or odor making the food not wholesome, but do not cause illness. When spoilage bacteria have nutrients (food), moisture, time, and favorable temperatures, these conditions will allow the bacteria to grow rapidly and affect the quality of the food. Food spoilage can occur much faster if it is not stored or handled properly. A change in the color of meat or poultry is not an indicator of spoilage (The Color of Meat and Poultry).

Given the safety and the impetus to reduce waste, FSIS left no doubt about the phrasing it recommends:

What Date-Labeling Phrase does FSIS Recommend?

USDA estimates food loss and waste at 30 percent of the food supply lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels2. One source of food waste arises from consumers or retailers throwing away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label. To reduce consumer confusion and wasted food, FSIS recommends that food manufacturers and retailers that apply product dating use a “Best if Used By” date. Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown. Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled “Best if Used By” date.

To help clarify why “Best if Used By” was recommended, FSIS restated what the use of the terms “Best if Used By” “Sell By” and “Use By” actually conveyed.  As you can see, despite consumer and retailer confusion, the phrases are actually meant for different market participants and proffer different information.

What Date-Labeling Phrases are Used?
There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates.

Examples of commonly used phrases:

  • “Best if Used By/Before”indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

  • “Sell-By”date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.

  • “Use-By”date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.

To be sure, this may not actually clear up anything given that the confusion stemmed from retailers and consumers assuming that the listed dates were expiration dates meant to convey a safety concern about consuming a product.  The continued deployment of the term “use”, still implies that using the product after a date is somehow wrong or bad.  If there is no nefarious intent and the idea is not to persuade consumers or retailers to throw it out and just buy a new one, perhaps “Best flavor by” or “Best taste by” would be more accurate alternatives.

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