Food In Canada

Sell by, use by, best before dates lead to food waste: study

By Food in Canada magazine staff   

Business Operations Food Safety Research & Development

A report from Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council finds that food date labels lead to the needless waste of billions of pounds of food each year

Washington, D.C. – A new report from the U.S. says sell by, use by and best before dates don’t indicate the safety of food and instead lead to enormous amounts of food waste.

The report, called The Dating Game: How confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America, was produced by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The authors say that date labels on food come in a “dizzying variety of forms,” including use by, best before, sell by and enjoy by.

Yet these dates are both poorly understood by consumers and surprisingly under-regulated, “such that their meanings and timeframes are generally not defined in law.”


The authors add that because regulators, industry players and consumers have become accustomed to seeing date labels on many food products over time, policymakers have not asked important questions about the date labelling system.

There has also been little analysis done on how these labels affect consumers’ choices and habits when it comes to purchasing and discarding food products.

The report takes a look at the historical impetus for placing dates on food and the ways in which the food system has failed to meet its goals. And how the food system and its players have created a range of other issues along the way.

The report also describes how and why food date labels contribute to the waste of edible food in the U.S.


The report also offers some recommendations on how to being to remedy food waste and food safety issues related to date labelling by creating a system in which date labels more clearly communicate information.

Some of the reports recommendations include:

• Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer

• Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system
• Establish standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels

• Include “freeze by” dates and freezing information where applicable

• Remove or replace quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products

• Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages

• Increase the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels”

Print this page


Stories continue below