Do “best before” labels contribute to food waste?
As awareness grows around the world about the problem of food waste, one culprit in particular is drawing scrutiny: “best before” labels.
Manufacturers have used the labels for decades to estimate peak freshness. Unlike “use by” labels, which are found on perishable foods like meat and dairy, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety and may encourage consumers to throw away food that’s perfectly fine to eat.
“They read these dates and then they assume that it’s bad, they can’t eat it and they toss it, when these dates don’t actually mean that they’re not edible or they’re not still nutritious or tasty,” said Patty Apple, a manager at Food Shift, an Alameda, California, nonprofit that collects and uses expired or imperfect foods.
To tackle the problem, major U.K. chains like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer recently removed “best before” labels from prepackaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a revamp to its labeling laws by the end of this year; it’s considering abolishing “best before” labels altogether.
In the U.S., there’s no similar push to scrap “best before” labels. But there is growing momentum to standardize the language on date labels to help educate buyers about food waste, including a push from big grocers and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress.
The United Nations estimates that 17% of global food production is wasted each year; most of that comes from households. In the U.S., as much as 35% of food available goes uneaten, ReFED says. That adds up to a lot of wasted energy — including the water, land and labor that goes into the food production — and higher greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food goes into landfills.
There are many reasons food gets wasted, from large portion sizes to customers’ rejection of imperfect produce. But ReFED estimates that 7% of U.S. food waste — or 4 million tons annually — is due to consumer confusion over “best before” labels.
Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to answer consumers’ concerns about product freshness. There are no federal rules governing them, and manufacturers are allowed to determine when they believe their products will taste best. Only infant formula is required to have a “use by” date in the U.S.
Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration — which regulates around 80% of U.S. food — has recommended that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods, based on surveys showing that consumers understand those phrases.
But the effort is voluntary, and the language on labels continues to vary widely, from “sell by” to “enjoy by” to “freshest before.” A survey released in June by researchers at the University of Maryland found at least 50 different date labels used on U.S. grocery shelves and widespread confusion among customers.
“Most people believe that if it says ‘sell by,’ ‘best by’ or ‘expiration,’ you can’t eat any of them. That’s not actually accurate,” said Richard Lipsit, who owns a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, California, that specializes in discounted food.
Lipsit said milk can be safely consumed up to a week after its “use by” date. Gunders said canned goods and many other packaged foods can be safely eaten for years after their “best before” date. The FDA suggests consumers look for changes in color, consistency or texture to determine if foods are all right to eat.
Some U.K. grocery chains are actively encouraging customers to use their senses. Morrisons removed “use by” dates from most store-brand milk in January and replaced them with a “best before” label. Co-op, another grocery chain, did the same to its store-brand yogurts.
Some U.S. chains — including Walmart — have shifted their store brands to standardized “best if used by” and “use by” labels. The Consumer Brands Association — which represents big food companies like General Mills and Dole— also encourages members to use those labels.
In the absence of federal policy, states have stepped in with their own laws, frustrating food companies and grocers. Florida and Nevada, for example, require “sell by” dates on shellfish and dairy, and Arizona requires “best by” or “use by” dates on eggs, according to Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.
The confusion has led some companies, like Unilever, to support legislation currently in Congress that would standardize U.S. date labels and ensure that food could be donated to rescue organizations even after its quality date. At least 20 states currently prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date listed on the label because of liability fears, Lieb said.
Clearer labeling and donation rules could help nonprofits like Food Shift, which trains chefs using rescued food. It even makes dog treats from overripe bananas, recovered chicken fat and spent grain from a brewer, Apple said.