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Topic Briefs

Deciphering Food Date Labels - September 2023

Manufacturers apply a wide variety of date labels such as “expires on,” “best before,” and “sell by,” to indicate the last date that a food will maintain its peak quality and flavor. However, with the exception of certain products like infant formula, these date labels are simply used to indicate peak freshness.

Date labeling is currently voluntary, and vague phrasing that varies by state leads to confusion at the grocery store and at home. Most consumers don’t realize that date labels generally refer to a product’s estimated quality, not whether it’s safe to consume. This confusion leads to an estimated 20 percent of consumer wasted food. That also means that perfectly edible food that could feed people gets sent to the landfill instead.  More accurate, consistent labeling would help consumers understand when these date labels serve as guidelines, and when to pay attention to firm expiration dates.