Groups Aim to Reduce Wasted Food by Changing ‘Best By’ Dates

10 October 2022

Each food product in the United States must show a "best before" date on its container.

The goal of placing the date on food is to tell the buyer when the food will be at its freshest.

Some people call the date the "expiration date." Many people believe it is unsafe to use the product after that date.

An expired best by date is seen on a can of garbanzo beans, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Boston, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
An expired "best by" date is seen on a can of garbanzo beans, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Boston, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

But some observers say "best before" labels have nothing to do with safety. They worry that the information will lead consumers to throw away food that is good to eat. People around the world are thinking about ways to prevent wasting food. They think that "best before" labels are one cause of waste.

Patty Apple is a manager at Food Shift in Alameda, California. It is a nonprofit group that collects and uses expired or bad looking foods. "They read these dates and then they believe that it's bad, they can't eat it... when these dates don't actually mean that they're not edible or they're not still nutritious or tasty," she said.

Some food sellers in Britain recently removed "best before" labels from prepackaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union may soon announce changes to its labeling laws. It may even end the requirement to include a date.

In the U.S., there is no similar effort to do away with "best before" labels. But there is a movement to make changes to labels that will help educate buyers about when food can be eaten.

Some big food store owners and food companies are pushing for the U.S. Congress to pass new laws on the subject. Dana Gunders is executive director of ReFED. It is a nonprofit group in New York state that studies food waste. Gunders said the level of support for the new laws is growing.

Wasted energy

ReFED says as much as 35 percent of available food goes uneaten in the United States. That adds up to a lot of wasted energy. The waste includes the water, land and labor that goes into the food production. The group says it also means more greenhouse gases coming from landfills, where people bury waste. But ReFED estimates that seven percent of U.S. food waste comes from people's misunderstanding of "best before" labels. That percentage is equal to about 3.6 million tons each year.

Date labels first appeared in the 1970s but there are no federal rules controlling them. The food producers themselves decide when they believe their products will taste best. Only baby formula must have a "use by" date in the United States.

Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that producers use the label "best if used by" for freshness. The FDA recommends "use by" for perishable goods, based on opinion studies showing that consumers understand those expressions.

Good for years

Richard Lipsit owns a store called Grocery Outlet in Pleasanton, California, that specializes in low-priced food. He said milk can be safely used up to a week after its "use by" date. And you can safely eat canned goods and many other packaged foods for years after their "best before" date.

The FDA says people should look for changes in color, thickness, or feel to learn if foods are all right to eat.

"Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of decay, when food is past its edible point," Gunders said. "We've lost trust in those senses and we've replaced it with trust in these dates."

Clearer labeling and donation rules could help groups like Food Shift. The group trains cooks using outdated food. If new laws are approved in Congress, food could be donated to food rescue organizations even after its quality date has passed. Food rescue describes efforts to find uses for outdated food. Currently, the Associated Press says at least 20 states ban the sale or donation of food after its quality date has passed.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Dee-Ann Durbin reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English.


Words in This Story

label –n. a piece of paper stuck to containers that tell about the product inside

customer –n. a person who buys goods or services

edible – adj. safe to eat and not poisonous.

prepackaged –adj. something that has been put in a package for sale and usually has been prepared for use upon opening

formula –n. a food for babies that is similar to mother's milk

perishable – adj. something, esp. a food, likely to spoil or deteriorate

confusion –n. a situation in which people are uncertain about what to do or unable to understand something

consumern. a person who buys a product to use it for themselves

canned –adj. put in a metal container

decayn. rot that is a result of bacterial, fungal, or chemical action