The U.S. Department of Agriculture says food sellers who use product dating labels should switch to the phrase “best if used by” to help reduce confusion and food waste.

Consumers are less likely to find such labels confusing than other widely used ones such as “Sell By” and “Use By,” the agency said this week. Here are some of the ramifications of the USDA’s move:


The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued the new guideline Wednesday as part of an effort to cut back on food that gets thrown out when it could be eaten or donated. The agency estimates 30 percent of food is lost or wasted, either at the retail or consumer level.

“This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash,” said Al Almanza, USDA deputy under secretary for food safety.

The guideline is aimed at food manufacturers and retailers. It follows a January directive from the USDA the agency said would make it easier for companies to donate food.



One reason food expiration labels are so confusing for consumers is that there aren’t many strict federal standards for them. Food product dating isn’t required by federal regulations except for infant formula.

Different labels are aimed at consumers and retailers, according to Bob Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Brackett wrote on the Institute of Food Technologists website that “Sell By” is designed to inform retailers of the date by which a product should be sold, but it does not mean a product is unsafe to consume after the date.

“Use By” is directed at consumers and means the quality of the product is likely to go down faster after the date, Brackett wrote. It does not mean an expired product will necessarily make a person sick, he wrote. “Best By” is also directed at consumers and suggests a date by which a product should be consumed for best possible quality, he wrote.

The USDA said this week that the use of many different phrases about food quality dates leads to disposal of food that is actually nutritious and safe to eat. The agency said its research shows that “Best If Used By” is easily understood by consumers.


Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who has put a focus on reducing food waste, said she is encouraged by the USDA’s move. She said a critical next move is to formalize changes with labeling legalization – a highly political issue. Changes are unlikely to happen swiftly, especially with a new Congress beginning in January.

Pingree introduced the Food Date Labeling Act this year. The proposal would establish a uniform national system for date labeling and educate consumers about the meaning of labels. Pingree intends to reintroduce the legislation in the new Congress next year, a spokesman said.

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