Decoding Food Labels: Quality vs. Safety

Dates on food labels are more about quality, not safety, which means food may still be safe to eat long after the "Best-By" and "Use-By" dates have passed.

Consumers often refer to the date on the label when purchasing food or deciding whether to eat food products lurking in the refrigerator or pantry shelves. But food label dates, often listed after phrases such as "Best-By," "Sell-By," or "Use-By," can be utterly confusing.

The problem with these phrases is they don't indicate whether the food is safe to eat, which is why some people err on the side of caution and toss food away after that date has passed.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, 30% to 40% of food produced in the United States is thrown away, and about 7% of all food waste is due to confusion about food label dates.

Moreover, results of the latest Consumer Food Insights (CFI) survey from the Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability (CFDAS) at Purdue University revealed that 59% of consumers believe "Use-By" dates refer to the food item's safety and 34% think it signifies quality.

The survey, which included responses from 1,200 consumers across the U.S., also found that people spend about $120 per week on groceries, which means many people could be throwing hard-earned money away due to food label confusion.

Food product date regulations

In the U.S., federal law does not require date labeling on food, except for infant formula, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says must have a "Use-By" date to ensure nutritional integrity.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires a "pack date" for poultry and thermally processed, commercially sterile products to help identify and trace products in a foodborne illness outbreak.

But for the most part, food date labeling is primarily left up to manufacturers' discretion.

Food manufacturers typically use open dating on products, which is a calendar date that consumers can use to determine if the food will be of the best quality. Retailers can refer to this date when deciding whether to remove the product from store shelves. Manufacturers often use open dating on meat, poultry, dairy, and egg products.

Food manufacturers can also use closed dating — a code identifying when the food product was made. Consumers will typically see this type of dating on shelf-stable products like canned or boxed foods.

Is food past the "Best-By" date safe to eat?

Food product dates are an indicator of food quality, not safety. So, the USDA says that if a product is handled correctly after purchase, it should be safe to consume after the "Best-By" or "Use-By" date unless it shows signs of spoilage.

According to the USDA, phrases most often used with a food product date include:

  • "Best if Used By/Before" date: This is not a purchase or safety date. It tells the consumer when a product will have the best flavor or quality.
  • "Sell-By" date: This is not a safety date. Instead, it indicates how long retailers should display the product on store shelves.
  • "Use-By" date: This is not a safety date unless the product is an infant formula. It is the last date the food is at peak quality.
  • "Freeze-By" date: This is not a purchase or safety date but indicates when the consumer should freeze a product to maintain optimal quality.

Other phrases consumers may see on food packaging include "Enjoy-Before" or "Expires-On."

How to tell if food is spoiled

Because eating spoiled or contaminated food can cause food poisoning or mild to severe gastrointestinal distress, identifying whether food items are unsafe to eat is critical.

The USDA says spoiled foods might smell off, or the flavor or texture may change. In addition, the color of poultry or meat may begin to appear faded or darker, and the product may have an off smell or feel sticky, slimy, or tacky to the touch.

Food products that show any sign of spoilage should be thrown away immediately.

Additionally, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes or fruits are at their best quality for 12 to 18 months, and low-acid canned foods like vegetables and meat will be at optimal quality for about two to five years. However, rusted, dented, or swollen cans should be discarded.

Because eggs are encased in a shell, it can be challenging to determine if they're spoiled. However, a person can tell if an egg is potentially unsafe to eat by placing it in a container of water. If the egg sinks, it's likely fresh. If it floats, the air cell has enlarged inside the shell, indicating the egg is old.

What are regulators doing about food date confusion?

Earlier this year, Senator Richard Blumenthal D-CT sponsored the Food Date Labeling Act of 2023 — a bill currently referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions — to establish a universally accepted quality date and discard date on food labels.

Moreover, the USDA, FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have collaborated with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance and the nonprofit ReFED to develop food-date labeling strategies. These groups recommend that food labels say "BEST if Used By" to indicate a food's peak quality and "USE-By" to indicate possible food safety risks.

If the bill eventually passes and food regulators implement their recommendations, it could help clarify food labeling and lead to less food waste in the U.S.

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