Saturday, September 21, 2013

What Are The Meaning Of Those Dates On Food Products?

Food products selling in supermarkets always have tiny dates printed on them telling you about "sell by", "use by", or "best before" date. What do they mean? According to a study, named The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, published by Natural Resources Defense Council, together with Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and generally speaking, they’re not regulated.

90% of Americans at least occasionally throw food away prematurely because they mistakenly interpret the date label to mean their food is unsafe; 25% do so every time. In the UK, they've estimated about 20% of food wasted in households is due to confusion over expiration dates.

The U.S.A. food dating system is not a system at all.  It’s a mess. For example, in most U.S.A. states, there are no laws requiring that orange juice needs to have a date stamped on it.  It is then up to the manufacturer to figure the whole thing out on their own, and there is a whole series of decisions they might go through, such as:

  • Should the product have a date displayed at all?  Their retail customers might demand this of them, otherwise it’s up to them.
  • Which words to use?  Will it be “use by” or “best before ”or even “sell by?” Up to them.
  • What does the date convey? Is it that the taste might change a little, or perhaps the color, or do they just want you to see it as a fresh product even if it will last quite a while longer?  There’s no definition, so in fact, a range of factors can feed into this decision.
  • How is the date calculated? They might use lab tests, do consumer taste tests, look at literature values, or just sales data.  Anything goes here.

You might think that there is similarity in the dates at least across orange juice brands, so that when you’re looking at two containers of orange juice, the dates are comparable, right?  Nope. Not the case.

The study pointed out that the main thing to understand is that foodborne illness comes from contamination, not spoilage.  Handling your food safely is more important than its age. So as consumers, the most important thing we can do is handle our food safely.

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