Keep it or toss it? ‘Best Before’ labels cause confusion
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.
“I do think that the level of support for this has grown tremendously,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.
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.