Sell by, best by and best if used by – what, if anything, is the actual difference?
Amy Schloerb has some beans in a cupboard in her Los Angeles home that are a year or two older than the date printed on the bottom. She doesn’t know whether to eat or toss them, so they just sit there month after month. The 35-year-old actress says she looks at expiration dates but doesn’t know what they mean.
“I pay attention probably more so than I need to,” Schloerb said. “My husband is better. He’s more like, ‘Uh, it’s within the month.'”
That confusion is replayed countless times every day around the U.S., but clarification may be on the way.
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The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it strongly supports the food industry’s efforts to standardize date labeling. Research has shown that “best if used by” – not, say not “best by” or “sell by” – helps shoppers better understand they don’t need to throw foods out after the printed date passes if they’re stored correctly.
The label terminology – which is about quality standards, not safety – is not mandatory, so food manufacturers don’t have to adopt it if they choose not to. The sole exception is infant formula.
This clarification of expiration labels is part of the FDA’s efforts to reduce food waste. Many American consumers are hyper-vigilant about throwing out food on or after that date, though in many cases, they don’t need to.
In its letter to the food industry, the FDA cites the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, estimating that every year Americans chuck 133 billion pounds of food, worth $161 billion. About 20% of consumer food waste stems from confusion over date labeling.
Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, likened it to going into a supermarket and buying three bags of groceries.
“When you walk out, you throw one away. Sound ridiculous? Of course, it does, but that’s what happens,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY. “It’s tragic that good food is being thrown away, but also, it’s a loss of dollars from consumers’ pockets.”
He added that standardizing date labels isn’t enough to effect change alone, so consumer education by industry, government, and non-government organizations must be part of the effort, too.
To Jill Roberts, a food-safety expert at the University of South Florida, Thursday’s announcement is a step in the right direction to help grocery shoppers.
“Consumers truly believe that once the date comes, that food becomes dangerous, that there’s some sort of a pathogen that’s in that food,” she said. “It works in the favor of the manufacturers definitely because you throw it out and you replace it.”
But the terminology simplification comes in part from an effort begun in 2017 by two trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute.
Meghan Stasz, GMA’s vice president of sustainability and packaging, said 87% of products produced by the organization’s members already adhere to the national standard and a survey found that by the end of the year, that’ll grow to 98%.
“Food manufacturers spend an increasing amount of resources, time and care in producing food products,” she added. “We don’t want them to throw food away out of confusion. … We want consumers to eat the products they buy.”
Martin Criminale of Seattle has been known to eat foods after their sell-by dates, like the li hing mui, a type of preserved fruit, he found in his desk drawer in March. “April 30, 2016” was the cut-off printed on the package.
His general rule is if the food is old meat or dairy, he won’t eat it, but if it’s something pickled or drowned in sugar and dried, he might. Like many Americans, he’s bewildered by the dates on food products.
“I trust my judgment,” said the 55-year-old IT manager. “I am contributing to waste, but I also believe the date is there for a reason. … I’m falling into a big category of pretty ignorant.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer