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What Does the “Sell By Date” Actually Mean?

I think it’s safe to say that most consumers believe that the “sell by” date on their packaged food product means just that…to sell the item by that date. Well, apparently myself and many other Americans are wrong.

According to a new study performed by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the dating and labeling system is a total mess. When a manufacturer is printing a “sell by” date or “use by” date, they are not doing so with the intention for the consumer to toss out the product by those dates, instead they really mean that the particular product is best when used by then. You might be thinking what is the purpose of “use by” dates then…well so are thousands of Americans!

“Those dates have nothing to do with the food safety,” says Dana Gunders, the co-author of the 61-page study. “They’re really just a manufacturer’s suggestion for when the food is at peak quality.”

According to Gunders, food suppliers use their own confusing language like sell by, use by, best by, or even just a date, but these dates don’t actually mean the product is unsafe or needs to be thrown away.

Due to the confusing nature of these dates, Americans are throwing away perfectly good food every day. This study found that $165 billion worth of food in the United States alone is being wasted each year.

To make matters worse, every state has its own dating and labeling system for it’s packaged foods. Some states don’t even require dates to be labeled on their food products. Some states only label products for retailers, while others are meant for the consumers.

Since we currently don’t truly understand when a product is actually at it’s peak or when it is no longer safe, the authors of this study are pushing for a change. They have even included an additional chapter at the end of their study with suggestions on how to clean up this labeling mess. Hopefully someone will come up with a logical system before we continue to play this costly guessing game!

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“We’d really like to see a more standardized, reliable and coherent system of date labels in the U.S.,” Gunders said.

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