An Op Ed by Emily Broad Leib,
Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, Food Law and Policy Clinic
My father used to keep food in the refrigerator for days, even weeks after the “best by” date, so long as it looked and smelled OK. My mom, by contrast, went out to buy a new carton of milk as soon as the date passed. Often there would be two containers of milk in our refrigerator: the half-empty one my dad was committed to finishing, and the new one my mom had purchased, out of fear that she might get sick if she drank my dad’s past-date milk.
Scenes such as this play out in households across the country. One person dutifully follows best-by, sell-by and use-by date labels on packaged and processed food while another jeers at them. According to one study, more than 90% of consumers report throwing away past-date food because of food safety fears. But the truth is that these dates are not intended to communicate safety information. Instead, they signal a manufacturer’s estimate of how long food will taste its best. Sometimes the dates are set based on consumer taste tests, but often they’re just a guess.
In 2013, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council published a report, “The Dating Game,” that tied food waste to date labels, and revealed that the dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate food safety. The Food and Drug Administration, which has the power to regulate date labels, has chosen not to, precisely because they are not related to safety. Food scientists say that not a single food safety outbreak in the U.S. has been traced to a food being consumed past date. (What are outbreaks traced to? Generally, to pathogens that may have contaminated the food during processing, or to “temperature abuse” such as leaving raw chicken in a hot car, or to air exposure that encourages mold. These are not problems that date labels currently address.)