'Best By' Dates Are Confusing AF. Here's How To Decode Them

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
'Best By' Dates Are Confusing AF. Here's How To Decode Them

Photo by Svetlana-Cherruty

Picture this: You reach for your trusty jar of nut butter only to realize that the "best by" date has come and gone. Do you give it a sniff and proceed as normal or throw it away assuming it has gone bad?

If you fall into the latter camp, you're not alone: According to a 2016 survey, up to 37 percent of Americans will always throw food away if the date on its label has passed, and 84 percent of them will do so sometimes. Taking best-by labels literally may seem like a healthy habit, but it actually could end up doing more harm than good.

Since these dates are often arbitrary, they contribute to the growing food waste crisis in America and around the world.

How "best by" dates contribute to food waste.

"These date labels are set by manufacturers, and often set rather arbitrarily," Jackie Suggitt, a director at ReFED, a nonprofit working to reduce food waste, told mbg. "With the exception of infant formula, there is no federal regulation for date labels on food products."

Let that sink in for a minute! While certain states have set up certain regulations on labeling perishable items such as milk and eggs, there are zero nationwide laws governing the dates that we see on labels. The language that appears in front of those dates—"sell by," "best by," "most delicious before," etc.—is also unregulated.

More often than not, dates are meant to indicate when a product stops tasting its best, not when it becomes unsafe to eat. Mistaking food quality for safety becomes a problem when it dictates how often you reach for your trash (or compost) bin.

"Those expiration dates are completely meaningless, and yet people really use them as guides," Rhea Suh, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the crowd of the Food Tank Summit, which galvanized hundreds of thought leaders around the topic of food waste in NYC this week. "It's mostly up to manufacturers," she added, explaining that it's in their best interest to label their product in a way that gets it off the shelf quickly.

According to the NRDC's Save the Food database (which, by the way, is an amazing resource if you're looking to reduce food waste in your own kitchen), 50 percent of seafood, 48 percent of fruits and vegetables, and 38 percent of grains in the United States are tossed. By reducing the amount of food we throw away in this country, we could save up to 2.34 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. If you ask Suggitt, she'll tell you that simply changing these date labels is one of the quickest ways we can do so.

A few organizations are starting to push the needle: The Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association offer advice to brands that want to switch over to a voluntary simpler two-code system (meaning every food item will either be marked "best if used by," which speaks to food quality, and "use by," which speaks to food safety), and ReFED is working on its own Standardized Date Labeling Tool to help manufacturers decide which products should carry which labels.


So how can I tell if something is safe to eat?

Until a more consistent system is in place, it really falls on the consumer to decide when something is past its prime. "We've evolved the ability to know when something is safe to eat," said Suh. "Trust yourself. Use the basic senses of smell, and taste, and look."

Start by looking over your food for mold, and smell them for any funky odors. "Overall, it is wise to observe your food—the color and the smell—before cooking or consuming it," nutritionist Abby K. Cannon, J.D., R.D., told mbg. "Those observations, along with the dates, can help you determine whether the food is safe."

With highly perishable items like poultry, meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy, and cheese, you're going to want to use a bit more caution and employ preventive measures to keep them fresher for longer. "To prevent disease-causing bacteria from multiplying, don't let perishable items remain in the danger zone, which is between 41°F to 135°F, for more than 2 hours," Cannon said.

There are also some general best practices you can adopt at home to ensure that you're consuming your food at peak freshness: Meal prepping, freezing the ingredients you won't get to for a while, and storing your food correctly are great ones to start with.

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