Updated: Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods?

Updated: Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods?

Between the food industry and consumers, Americans are throwing out about a third of our food — about $161 billion worth each year.

Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of food waste in the home. That’s not surprising when you consider the variety of terms used with date labels, such as “use before,” “sell by,” “expires on,” and many more.

Most Date Labels Are Not Based on Exact Science

Manufacturers generally apply date labels at their discretion and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the date up to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor.

Date labels are generally not required on packaged foods. While manufacturers are prohibited from placing false or misleading information on a label, they are not required to obtain agency approval of the voluntary quality-based date labels they use or specify how they arrived at the date they’re applied.

Waste Not: Advice on How to Reduce Food Waste
The original article this post was based on is no longer on the FDA website. A (perhaps abridged) version is available on the USDA’s WIC Works platform.

Read a longer version of the article on EduBirdie. This version may include content that was not in the original article. I have no way to tell.

[ Link updated on Dec 21, 2023. The version on EduBirdie was published on 06/05/2022; the original post may have been published in 2019. EduBirdie offers essay writing services for a fee. This link is not an endorsement of the company or its services. ]

Other FDA Resources on This Topic

How to Cut Food Waste and Maintain Food Safety
Learn key ways to reduce food waste, help the environment and maintain food safety.

How to Cut Food Waste and Maintain Food Safety (.PDF download)

FoodKeeper App

Archived Comments

Comment by: murjones50
Posted on: Jun 20, 2020

great information!

Comment by: Keith_Ayoob
Posted on: Jun 05, 2019

Right on. Additionally — I always laugh at labels that declare their contents as “natural,” a term with absolutely NO standard definition. The feds are trying to change that, and have asked for comments, etc., but up to now, ANY food could legally be labeled as natural.

Consumers often think other statements on food labels, like “non-GMO”, and the “free-from” stuff (dairy-free, sugar-free, nut-free, gluten-free, etc.) are health claims. Nope. They’re descriptors and that’s it. Unfortunately, consumers read these on labels and can INFER the product is somehow healthier. Wearing my cynical hat, sometimes appealing to the consumer’s ideology or food philosophy is just a marketing gimmick and a way to justify a higher price.

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