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'Use-By' Dates: A Myth That Needs Busting

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Food Safety &  Social Justice page and our Organic Transitions page.
Here's a superbly kept secret: You know all those dates you see on food products that say "sell by," "use by," and "best before"? Those dates do not indicate the safety of your food, and generally speaking, they're not regulated.

I couldn't believe it either, but a quick look at USDA's food labeling site confirms that the only product for which "use-by" dates are federally regulated is infant formula. Beyond that, some states regulate dates for some products, but generally "use-by" and "best-by" dates are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality.

Suggestions. For peak quality. That's all.

If this is news to you, you're not alone. Research on date labeling in the U.K. by the organization WRAP shows that 45 to 49 percent of consumers misunderstand the meaning of the date labels, resulting in an enormous amount of prematurely discarded food. In fact, WRAP estimates that a full 20 percent of food waste is linked to date labeling confusion. Of course, that also means 20 percent more sales for manufacturers recommending those dates. After all, if your milk goes bad, you don't stop drinking milk; you just go to the store and buy some more.


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