New Report Sheds Light on Food Packaging Dates

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • A couple of months ago, I was at the mailbox when my neighbors’ car was pulling out of their driveway and headed toward me. Slowing and lowering the window, my neighbors stopped to chat. “Where are you heading” I asked. “Our teen-age daughter went through our pantry, refrigerator and freezer and throughout everything that was out of date,” my neighbor told me.  “So we have to go out to eat because we have nothing left in our cupboards!”

    Turns out my neighbors’ daughter – like many of us -- may have been a little hasty in her judgment on what was still safe to eat. A new study by the National Resources Defense Council and Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic sheds some light on those pesky food date labels. “All those dates on food products – sell by, use by, best before – almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally, speaking, they’re not regulated in the way many people believe,” the report’s issues paper stated, adding that the current system is misleading for consumers.

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    I get confused by what these dates are fior – and I bet you do too. So what do they mean? According to the report:

    • Production or pack date – this is the date on which the food was manufactured or put into the final packaging.
    • Sell by date – This date is the manufacturer’s suggestion of when the grocery store should no longer sell the food product. This date helps the stores rotate their stock.
    • Best if used by or best by date – This date is the manufacturer’s estimate of when food will no longer be at the highest quality.
    • Use by date – This date also involves the manufacturer’s estimate of the last recommended date when the product will be at its peak quality.
    • Freeze by date – This date serves as a guide of when to freeze the product.

    The study pointed out that this dating process may cause consumers to ignore risk factors that are actually more relevant, such as the time and temperature control throughout the distribution channel. The authors point out that the major factor that should cause worry is the amount of time that food spends between 40 degrees and 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is considered the danger zone. “For instance, if someone leaves a product that requires refrigeration in a hot car for too long, it could actually be unsafe to eat even before the stated date on the package,” the authors stated. “When temperature abuse occurs or food is otherwise compromised, an open date becomes essentially meaningless, but consumers are likely to trust the label date and use the product anyway.”

    However, if temperature abuse has not happened, many foods – with the exception of ready-to-eat perishable foods as well as foods for specific susceptible populations -- actually are safe to eat past their date labels. Furthermore, quality-based label dates aren’t considered relevant indicators for food safety because the food will generally deteriorate in quality where it’s not palatable to eat way before it becomes a safety risk. These dates generally are set way before this spoilage point, meaning the food is still safe to eat and of good quality for a significant amount of time.

  • However, there is one area of food safety where date labeling is considered a valid solution to increase food safety. That’s for ready-to-eat foods that are not heated, such as packaged sandwiches where there’s a risk of Listeria monocytogen. This pathogen can grow and multiply while being refrigerated.

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    The report does make recommendations to help clarify the labeling process. These recommendations include:

    • Making “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer since they provide no useful guidance for this group once they’ve brought the products home.
    • Establishing a dating system that is reliable, coherent and uniform. This system would establish standard, clear language that would be used for both quality-based date labels and safety-based labels. Additionally, freeze by dates and freezing information when applicable would be included. Quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products should be removed or replaced. Date labels needs to be clearly and predictably located on packages. Transparency is needed on the method used to select these date.
    • Increasing information related to safe-handling of the food and “how to use” instructions.

    Primary Source for This Sharepost:

    National Resource Development Council. (2013). The dating game: How confusing labels land billions of pounds of food in the trash.

Published On: September 20, 2013