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For Food Manufacturers, 'Sell By' Labels May Have Reached Their Expiration Date

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Some states require expiration dates on items such as milk and meat.
Ryan Eskalis, NPR
Some states require expiration dates on items such as milk and meat.

Two of the most influential groups in the food industry are asking companies to change those pesky "expiration" or "sell by" labels on packaged food.

The labels, you see, don't mean what they appear to mean. Foods don't "expire." Most foods are safe to eat even after that "sell by" date has passed. They just may not taste as good, because they're not as fresh anymore. Companies use the labels to protect the reputation of their products – they want consumers to see and consume their food in as fresh a state as possible. But those dates often have the perverse effect of convincing over-cautious consumers to throw perfectly good food into the trash.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are hoping to prevent that. They're now advising their members, which include most major food manufacturers and retailers, to abolish many current labels, including "Expires on" and "Sell by."

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Instead, they're asking companies to use just two labels. One would use the words "Best if used by" a particular date. This label would probably go on most foods. And companies could put a "Use by" date on products that could become less safe as they age. Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the GMA, said the second label might go on packages of shucked raw oysters, for example.

Some environmental advocacy groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been pushing for such a reform for a long time. They say the existing labels have been an obstacle to reducing food waste. Last year, the USDA issued a guidance document that asked companies voluntarily to adopt one universal label, using the words "Best if used by."

Expiration dates on food are not required by any federal law, although some states require such dates on meat or milk. As a food product passes its "expiration" date, it may get stale, and some products, like milk, may go sour. But according to food safety experts, most spoiled foods, though unpalatable, aren't particularly hazardous.

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