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Food Expiration Dates: Everything You Need to Know

Studies indicate that two significant factors on food labels impact consumer choices: food prices and expiration dates. The expiration date provides insight into the food's quality from the point of production until the end of its shelf life. This information plays a vital role in shaping our decisions when buying groceries.

Manufacturers use terms with different meanings because there isn’t a national standard for date labeling. They predict the date based on temperature during production, expected normal product temperature, and exposure to varying temperature levels. 

This article explores the meanings and types of dating labels. It also examines the problems associated with food date labeling, resulting in food waste, and potential solutions.

What is the food expiration date? 

Best before date on eggs

Some of us have the habit of checking the product labels of packaged foods to determine how long they’ll last. However, there is a lot of confusion surrounding food label dates. 

Most people mistake expiration dates for the time required for food spoilage; that is, after this date, the food product is no longer good to consume. So, when the date recommended on the food label passes, we throw the food product out. This leads to an increase in food waste in the environment.   

Instead, food product dating serves as a quality assurance date. Manufacturers use it to inform consumers of the time frame in which the food maintains its best quality. However, food producers don't need to use food labels. 

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, most date labels are not science-based. No rule or regulation requires manufacturers to divulge how they reached the food expiration dates they use. Also, they don’t have to get approval from food inspection service agencies regarding food date labels.

How to read expiration dates on food labels

Many misconceptions exist about the meaning of food date labels. Manufacturers use two formats of food product dating on food labels. They are open dating format and closed dating format. Manufacturers use Open Dating to inform consumers about the time frame for which a food item maintains peak quality.

Also, it helps supermarkets and stores decide how long to sell the product. Closed Dating uses a series of letters and numbers to show the date and time of production. Most manufacturers use the open dating format to show the quality of their food. Using the open dating format, various types of date labels on packaged products exist. They are:

1. Best if used by/Best before/Best by date

Best if used by or best before dates signify the period when the product's flavor and quality are at their best. Once the date has passed, it's not a food safety date showing that the food item is bad. It means that the quality or taste might be reduced. 

Manufacturers use best-before dates on a wide variety of food products, including grains, canned foods, and vegetable oil. 

2. Freshest by 

A freshest-by date shows the period a food product can maintain peak quality. Once the freshest-by date passes, the food item is no longer considered as fresh as before the due date. 

3. Use-by date/ Expiration date

The use-by-date label is also similar to the best-before label. It is the last date to use a product at its best quality. Use by is a food safety date. Food manufacturers use expiration dates on perishable items like fresh meat, dairy products, fish, and other chilled ready-to-eat food. 

4. Sell-by date

The sell-by dates on food items show how long a store should put the products on sale for inventory management. This date label isn't a food safety label. Instead, it helps stores control their stock and not keep food products past their best-before dates. 

How do food label dates contribute to food waste?  

Food waste is a problem faced globally. Food waste occurs at all levels of food production to consumption. In the United States, 40% of the food supply goes to waste annually, costing $218 billion yearly.

In 2020, China produced 91.65 million tons of food waste. India, the United States, and Indonesia produced 68.76, 19.36, and 20.94 million tons of waste5, respectively. Food waste occurs in various life industries. 

The United Nations conducted an Environment Programme Food Waste Index in 2021. It recorded that 13% of food waste is from the retail industry, 26% is from the food service industry, and 61% is from households.

Read more: Food waste facts and statistics.

The problem with food expiration dates

Many of our bad grocery shopping, food production, and consumption habits contribute to the rise in food waste. An example is the significant confusion over food date labels. Many people misunderstand the meaning and function of food labels, which influences their decisions. Most people often trash food products because they are close to the date on the label or the date on the label has passed. 

When people see a best-before date, they assume it means the date the food goes bad. Whenever they don't consume packaged food before the best-before date, most people throw it in the trash—contributing to food waste. 

In the US, a study showed that misconceptions regarding a date label produce 20% of food wastage2. They believe that the food is not safe to eat.

Some stores also trash frozen foods and expired fresh food products when sell-by dates are due. These actions are understandable because the consumption of old and spoiled food could lead to the development of foodborne illness.

According to research conducted by Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic on 1029 adults, one-third of the consumers think that date labels are federal law. Another one-third of the consumers believe wrongly the federal government regulates labels6.

Another study on a group of Polish people showed that over half would not consume food after the last date of acceptable quality1. 42% of the test group believe that use by date and best before date mean the same thing, while about 40% believe that best before dates are food safety dates.

Are food products past the purchase or safety date safe to eat? 

Food expiration date lettuce

People dispose of food products past their expiry dates because of safety concerns. However, the dates on these products don’t mean they are unsafe to eat. Some food products do not spoil for weeks or months after the last date, while others slowly lose their quality. Multiple factors determine the durability of foods after their use-by or sell-by date. 

Research conducted on various food items shows levels of bacterial growth over six months. The researchers tested UHT milk, pasta, mayonnaise, and jam. They found no increase in the amount of microorganisms in the foods. Also, the physio-chemical analysis of the food products 1 to 6 months after the expiry dates was almost constant. The changes were not significant.

In addition, the products' pH values did not change after six months. The tests showed that the color of the pasta and milk changed after three months. There was a notable change in the consistency of mayonnaise three months after its best-before date. Also, cooking the pasta six months after its expiry date resulted in a softer texture.

Overall, these tested food items were free from harmful bacteria and microbiological contamination 3 to 6 months after their due date. This was because they were stored according to the manufacturer's instructions. Consuming them 3 to 6 months after their best-before date usually poses no health risk. The only problem encountered is the change in quality.

Most of us regard food past its product date label as bad because of the reduced quality and flavor. The change in texture, appearance, smell, and the noises made while chewing all influence the thought that the food is bad for consumption. However, that isn’t always the case. Some products with a best-before date are still consumable a month after the date. 

This research doesn’t apply to all foods, and we should always exercise caution when eating foods that can harbor bacteria, such as meat, untreated and fresh dairy, fish and shellfish. Don't consume these food types if they are old, smell bad, or have deteriorated.

How to reduce food waste caused by date label misconceptions?  

We have established that some foods are consumable after their expiry date. How do we reduce food wastage because consumers misunderstand food label dates? 

Some people suggest removing food date labeling to reduce food waste. However, it's not advisable. Many consumers need adequate information about sustainable grocery shopping and cooking practices. It is preferable to keep the label because it aids speedy consumption. 

However, other ways exist to reduce the waste produced from expired products. We can reduce it by:

Educating people on food product labels and standardizing the food label language

There is confusion regarding food label dates because of the need for uniform language and public awareness. Multiple expiry date terms are used in various parts of the world. Creating standard terms for quality, purchase, or safety dates will make it easy for people of all ages to learn and understand what they mean.

Lack of knowledge contributes to the high food waste in the environment. Educating the public about date labels will help reduce the quantity of food we waste. When people are aware, they throw away less food and watch their shopping habits.

Commercial campaigns and targeted outreach programs aid the spread of public awareness. The campaigns should offer information and encourage people to be more eco-friendly with food purchases.

Related: Check out our guides to food miles and zero-waste grocery shopping for more information on eco-friendly food shopping.

Extending foods' shelf life 

To reduce the food wastage rate, manufacturers can adjust the shelf life of products. Most of the time, they don’t set the dates for the actual quality of the product, so people throw it out faster. They should adjust the dates to the last predictable day the food loses its best flavor. Also, they can show the quality of the product using a different format known as Time-Temperature Indicators (TTI)4.

Time-temperature indicators (TTI) are tools used to measure and monitor some food products' temperature history efficiently. This method is commonly used to manage fresh food. A study conducted on TTI shows it is effective at reducing food loss3. Also, the financial sector benefits from implementing TTI. It increases the profit from the sales of extended products.

Proper food storage

It is important to store food properly according to the manufacturer's instructions. This ensures the food lasts past its expiry date. Tools like the FoodKeeper app, set up by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, can help you keep track of the shelf life and quality of food products.

How does the expiry date affect baby formula?

Infant formula also comes with date labeling, mostly “best before.” It is the product that adheres to the date specified. The United States Food and Drug Administration makes date labeling a requirement for infant formula producers.

It usually expires one year after the manufacturing date. If you don’t open your can of baby formula for a year, the nutrients in the ingredients used to create it break down. It loses nutrients, rendering it useless to the baby.

Food Date Labeling Regulations 

There are no stipulated federal laws regarding food date labeling. Manufacturers predict durability dates as they deem fit. However, some countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have some date labeling regulations. 

It is essential to date products that last 90 days or fewer in Canada. Goods packaged in the retail store require a "packaged on" date. Foods pre-packaged in different locations from the retail store must have a best-before date and storage instructions. The law is against providing misleading date information that can impact human health.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also requires expiration dates on foods with strict composition and nutrient specifications that might deteriorate after expiry. Expiration dates should appear on infant formula, nutritional supplements, foods for low-energy diets, and complete nutritional diets for people using the tube feeding method.

The United Kingdom uses "best before' or "use by" dates. Displaying either of these two dates on the food packaging is a must. The government requires producers to use "use by" dates when there's a risk of food diseases with consumption after the day passed.

As a producer in the United Kingdom, follow the guidance on date marking. 

Producers must date:

  • Unpeeled fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Wine, sparkling wine, liqueur wine, and other liquids made from other fruits 
  • Drinks made with grapes
  • Solid sugar
  • Cooking salt
  • Chewing gums
  • Vinegar

Producers in the United States Food and Drug Administration don't have any mandatory requirements to sell products with date labels, except baby formula. The only federal regulation is the provision of accurate dating information. The "best used by" dating format must include the month and the day of the month by which the product's quality starts deteriorating. Producers must also include the year for frozen products. They use closed-coded dates for cans and boxes of food.

Michigan requires date labeling on pre-packaged perishable foods and dairy products. The state restricts the sale of these items and meat after the labeled date. Montana state requires the date labeling of milk d with a “sell by” date of 12 days from pasteurization. The state also bans the sale or donation of milk after that date.

The Food Labeling Act Bill recently entered the House and Senate in December 2021. They passed the bill to set up a nationally uniform labeling system because the US needs a consistent approach.

Conclusion 

Food expiry dates contribute to high levels of wasted food and food loss because most people misunderstand them. We throw away good quality food to avoid foodborne illnesses. To prevent this, you can consciously attempt to learn the accurate meanings of expiry dates in your regions.

1

Zielińska, D., Bilska, B., Marciniak-Łukasiak, K., Łepecka, A., Trząskowska, M., Neffe-Skocińska, K., Tomaszewska, M., Szydłowska, A., & Kołożyn-Krajewska, D. (2020). Consumer Understanding of the Date of Minimum Durability of Food in Association with Quality Evaluation of Food Products After ExpirationInternational journal of environmental research and public health17(5), 1632.

2

Debasmita Patra, Paul T. Leisnham, Collins K. Tanui, Abani K. Pradhan, Evaluation of global research trends in the area of food waste due to date labeling using a scientometrics approach, Food Control, Volume 115, 2020, 107307, ISSN 0956-7135.

3

Tingting Gao, You Tian, Zhiwei Zhu, Da-Wen Sun, Modelling, responses and applications of time-temperature indicators (TTIs) in monitoring fresh food quality, Trends in Food Science & technology, Volume 99, 2020, Pages 311-322, ISSN 0924-2244.

4

M.E. Buisman, R. Haijema, J.M. Bloemhof-Ruwaard, Discounting and dynamic shelf life to reduce fresh food waste at retailers, International Journal of Production Economics, Volume 209, 2019, Pages 274-284, ISSN 0925-5273.

5

Tiseo, I. (2023, February 6). Annual Food Waste by Select Country Worldwide | Statista.

6

Greenberg, S., Spiker, M., Rice, C., Schklair, A., & Nef, R. (2016, May). Consumer Perception of Date Labels: National Survey (pdf).

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Gabriela Tamara Cycman on Unsplash
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