'Best by' vs. 'sell by': If you're confused over food labels, you're not alone

The litany of labels telling you when your food spoils can be wildly confusing.

Does "best if used by" mean you can't eat it past that date or you'll get sick? Same question for "better if used by" and "sell by." There are more than 10 different variations of expiration date phrasing. People often play it safe and toss food early.

But rest easy, shoppers, things may be getting simpler and food could be saved in the process.

Two food industry groups, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, are pushing grocers and food makers across the industry to limit food expiration labels to two terms: "Best if used by" and "use by."

"Best if used by," the groups said, will apply mostly to non-perishable foods. The groups define it as such: "'Best if used" describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume." The "use by" date will be used for perishable foods such as meat, fish and cheese, or "the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time." Foods with a use by date, they said, "should be consumed by the date listed on the package — and disposed of after that date."

Put simply, you can eat foods past their "best if used by" date, they just may not taste as good. And foods still lingering after their "use by" date should be tossed.

"We want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand that they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible," said FMI President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin.

The initiative is voluntary, but GMA and FMI want grocers and food makers to start phasing the terms in immediately. Their aim is "widespread adoption" by summer 2018.

Apart from clarity, the effort hopes to save food. Clearing up confusing food labels, the groups said, could reduce national food waste by about 8%.

The push has the support of Wal-Mart, ShopRite, Dean Foods and Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Jack Jeffers, vice president of quality at Dean Foods, called the change to simpler terms a win-win.

"It means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error, " he said. "It's much better that these products stay in the kitchen — and out of landfills."

USA TODAY


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