In the U.S., about 133 billion pounds of food gets tossed, uneaten each year. By making expiration dates less confusing, the FDA hopes to make wasted food a little less common.

By Andrea Beck
May 24, 2019

Dates stamped on your food can be befuddling—while you’re picking your eggs, milk, and bread, you'll see a variety of phrases like “best by,” “expires on,” and “sell by,” along with dozens of others. Each one means something slightly different, and in most cases, your food doesn’t immediately become unsafe to eat when the date on the packaging arrives.

The root of the confusion lies in the lack of consistency: There’s no standard every company follows—each one can choose if they label with "best by," "sell by," etc. But on May 23, the FDA officially announced that it supports the food industry's effort, led by the Grocery Manufacturer's Association and the Food Marketing Institute, to standardize the term “best if used by” for labeling dates on food packaging.

It’s important to note, however, that this phrase doesn’t address the safety of food, just the quality. The phrase “best if used by” is meant to give consumers an idea of when their loaf of bread, package of cookies, block of cheese, gallon of milk, and so on will be at its peak quality. You can probably safely eat chips that have passed their “best if used by” date, but they might be a little stale or less crunchy. Use expiration dates as a guideline, but watch out for signs of spoilage (like an off smell or color) to help determine if fresh foods and pantry staples are safe to eat.

The FDA’s support of using the term “best if used by” is an effort to cut down on food waste in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has estimated that at the retail and consumer level, about 30 percent of food is lost or wasted. That translates to about 133 billion pounds of food wasted each year.

Related: According to a New Study, Dollar Store Produce is Just as Good as the Grocery Store's

As Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, explained, that’s close to a third of the food at the retail and consumer level going to waste—it’s like throwing out one bag of groceries for every three bags you buy. The FDA has further estimated that consumer confusion related to labeling and expiration dates accounts for about 20 percent of that food waste.

Even though expiration dates and labels aren’t legally required on most food products (infant formula is the only product with expiration dates regulated by law), the FDA is hoping that by standardizing labels across most food products, consumers will have an easier time determining what’s still fresh in their pantry. And with clearer labeling, the FDA also hopes food waste will decrease over time.

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If the labeling changes happen, they won't happen overnight, so in the meantime, there are a few adjustments you can make to help cut down on food waste in your kitchen. The FDA recommends planning and sticking to your grocery list when shopping (so you don’t end up with more food than you need, or food you won’t eat), and buying “ugly” produce (fruits or vegetables with imperfections that are still safe to eat) if it’s available.

In your kitchen, check your fridge and cabinets regularly to see what you have on hand, and try to use up products before they go bad. If you have more food than you need, consider donating nonperishable items to a local food pantry. As the food industry changes, you can make a difference in cutting down on food waste just by making a few simple changes in how you shop and cook.

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