Food Waste: What’s in a Date?

Melissa Radiwon Marketing Manager Blog Editor

Melissa Radiwon
Marketing Manager
Blog Editor

Have you ever gone to pour yourself a tall, cold glass of milk, only to see the date stamped on the carton was two days ago? Has it gone bad? You do the sniff test – it smells okay. But are you going to get sick after you drink it down? You close up the carton and put it back in the refrigerator for some other family member to take that risk.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers are not required (by the FDA) to place “expired by”, “use by” or “best before” dates on food products. It’s up to the manufacturers.

So without regulation or industry consensus, we get the plethora of packaged perishable labeling practices: sell-by, best-by, use-by, best before, etc. What do they mean? Should we toss it on the date? The day before? A week after?

Food product date labeling confusion can lead to food waste.According to the ReFED: A Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste this confusion leads up to 90% of Americans occasionally throwing out still-fresh food and accounts for 20% of consumer waste of safe, edible food. In monetary figures, that is $29 billion (with a “b”) of wasted consumer spending each year.

No need to throw your hands in the air and walk away defeated.

The Roadmap outlined several actions that could make a dent in preventing 5% – 10% of this waste.

  • Manufacturers can come to a voluntary consensus on wording and meaning for date labels.
  • In the absence of a voluntary consensus, a multi-stakeholder approach could mitigate risk, fund research, measure change and educate consumers.
  • Again in the absence of voluntary commitment, the FDA could update regulations to standardize date labeling and contribute to funding consumer education.

The report also mentions proposed legislation, Food Recovery Act (Rep. Chellie Pingree), that talks to standardizing date labels. According to Rep. Pingree’s website, the bill would require manufacturers to use the words, “Best if used by” as well as the words “Manufacturer’s suggestion only.”


First in a four part series, this series aims to spotlight various aspects of the recently released report ReFED: A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste.

Brief summary of the report development: The “Roadmap” took an analytical approach to assessing where food waste occurs and the economic potential of various solutions, then outlined 27 actionable solutions. The report was developed by consulting firms Deloitte Consulting LLC and RRS, with close collaboration from The Closed Loop Fund, MissionPoint Partners, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. ReFED also built an advisory board of leading organizations across public and private sectors. For more information about ReFED and the report, please visit