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What does "best if used by" on packaged food really mean?

"Best if used by" food label's meaning
  • The U.S. wastes $161 billion in food each year, some of that due to consumer confusion over packaging labels.
  • The FDA is backing a uniform label to show when a product's quality might start to fade.
  • Regulators say the move would curtail misunderstandings that lead to 20% of household food waste.

When it comes to labels on food, there's no agreed upon wording to let consumers know when to toss packaged grocery items. Public confusion over how long they can keep and safely eat products is part of the reason Americans throw away roughly a third of their food -- about $161 billion worth -- each year. 

Compounding the uncertainty for consumers about when to toss food is the array of descriptions producers use to signal a product's shelf life. Those include "use by," "sell by," "freeze by," "best if used before" and "expires on," leaving the public unclear on the safety of products and causing lots of perfectly fine food to get tossed. 

The current excessive waste is akin to a shopper buying three bags full of groceries, only to throw one of the bags in the garbage before heading home. "That's in essence what food waste looks like every day across of country," Frank Yiannas, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said in a statement.

Agreeing on a phrase

Looking to stem the tide of still-edible food that ends of in landfills, the FDA is backing a voluntary industry effort to standardize the "best if used by" wording on packaged food, saying it should curb consumer confusion thought to contribute to about 20% of food wasted in U.S. homes. 

The agency cited consumer research that found "best if used by" most effectively communicates the message the agency wants to relay -- that while the product's quality is optimal up to the specified date, the item is still safe to eat after that time so long as it's properly stored. 

"We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this 'Best if Used By' terminology," Yiannas said. "This change is already being adopted by many food producers."

A win or over-rated?

Still, the FDA's guidance may not go far in clearing up the public's misunderstanding about labels, observers said. For one, the labeling only applies to food quality, not its safety.

"The change is overrated because it is still confusing to consumers and could easily imply that if something is not 'best' it is not safe, especially given the constant stories in the media about contaminated food causing illness and death," Rena Steinzor, a food safety expert and University of Maryland law professor, said in an email. 

Mark Swanson, CEO of Birko, a food sanitation company, called the agency's move "a good first step." However, "without proper education, there will still be confusion around food safety beyond the 'best by' date," he added.

The FDA announcement is a "win for consumers, according to Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said Thursday in a statement. A December 2018 survey conducted by GMA found 85% of Americans found simplified date labels to be helpful, the GMA said. 

The GMA and the Food Marketing Institute in January 2017 recommended making the phrase uniform, along with use of the "use by" phrase to indicate when food should no longer be eaten for safety reasons. In a letter to the food industry, the FDA said it would not address the latter phrase "at this time."

To toss or not to toss?

Predicting when food is past its prime is an inexact science, according to Kevin Smith, senior advisor for food safety in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He said consumers should regularly examine food in their kitchen cabinets or pantries that have passed their "best if used by" dates, and throw out if they've noticeably changed in color, consistency or texture.

"Food is much safer than it was a few decades ago, largely because of refrigeration and dramatically improved manufacturing processes. But to really address the problem with food waste, the FDA should tell people something more meaningful than open it, look at it, smell it, and if it seems OK, eat away, otherwise, toss," Steinzor added.

The FDA should instead define when foods become risky to eat based on shelf life and require those dates be disclosed, she said.