“Sell by” dates may assure consumers, but they are mostly arbitrary. They came into being as part of a larger consumer movement in the 1970s, and reflected concerns about food safety. But the current system is incredibly incoherent, and may not be serving the nation’s needs. Congress, the USDA, the FDA and about 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) oversee a “hodgepodge of rules and regulations but not firm guidelines.”

Do these dates stamped on food products make us safer? We don’t know; little research has been done.

Foodborne illnesses are a serious problem (consider the Blue Bell Creamery Listeria outbreak). But food waste is also a critical concern. This smart opinion piece from Bloomberg View lays out the key issues and provides some good ideas about changes that could make us safer…and waste less food. A #goodread.


…by some estimates, Americans throw away 40 percent of the food they buy, or about 20 pounds per person per month. The average household throws away $275 to $455 a year worth of edible food because of freshness-date confusion. According to a study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, more than 60 percent of Americans refer to the “use by” or “sell by” date when deciding when to discard a carton of milk.

Could codifying labels across the nation provide a solution? Possibly.


One idea is to codify labeling practices nationally and replacing “use by” or “sell by” dates on fresh products with “freshest before.” To ensure that consumers understand that this is not an expiration date, retailers could post signs in their fresh-food sections. It would also help if the placement of labels were standardized, so consumers didn’t have to hunt around on the package to find them. Consumers should also know that many foods past their freshness dates can safely be frozen.


Want to weigh in? Contact David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.


Related Links:

What a World War 1 poster can teach us about food waste

Earth Day 2015: tackling food wast