Have We Lost Sight of What Food Date Labels Really Mean?

Recently in a podcast episode of 99% Invisible, the connection between food date labels and how they relate to food waste was explored.

The story begins in Montana, a state that requires “sell by” dates for milk to be 12 days after pasteurization, even though the industry standard is 21 days after pasteurization. Montana state law also prohibits the sale or donation of milk past these dates, causing hundreds of gallons of milk to be dumped down the drain every week in every grocery store. This is an alarming example of the need for food date label standardization.

Image courtesy of The Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic and Racing Horse Productions

Image courtesy of The Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic and Racing Horse Productions

One of the immediate problems with current unregulated date labeling is that the wording used with labels isn’t consistent, leaving consumers left to guess what each of them mean. The meaning of these phrases varies from product to product, and can even vary within a single manufacturer.

For the majority of products these dates are only about freshness and are either obtained from taste tests or estimated by the producer. The small amount of products that actually do pose a health risk if consumed after the printed date includes deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses etc. Yet, current date labeling treats all foods with the same time sensitivity, even though most products have longer shelf lives.

The first food date labels in the 1970s were encrypted because they were only meant for producers and retailers, but consumers demanded ways to determine the freshness of the food they were buying. Eventually, the New York Consumer Protection Board released a booklet that showed consumers how to decode these closed date labels, and prompted demand for open date labels on packaging. Since then 41 states have adopted their own laws requiring certain items to include date labels, and 20 of those states restrict the sale or donation of food after it has reached its printed date even though it may be perfectly suitable to eat.

Many attempts have been made to create federal regulations for date labeling, but none had the support needed to become law. The difference now is that the conversation of food waste has become a national issue. With the support of food waste reduction goals set by government and industry groups, the time is finally right. Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the NRDC-Harvard report “The Dating Game” says “I am hopeful that we can get consumers, industry, and policymakers to agree that a national standard phrase would make sense, and then push for federal and state changes that make this change.”

This year Californians Against Waste and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) worked together to introduce a bill with Assembly Member David Chiu of San Francisco, which standardizes the phrasing for food date labels. With this bill we hope to reduce waste and help consumers to better understand what food date labels really mean.

Listen to the podcast here