Sell by, best if used by, expires on, display until; the shelf life of food seems like it’s a well regulated, concrete affair, but it’s not: It differs by region and type of food. In the end, those labels mean almost nothing, which leads to both food waste and an assumption of safety.
Where Expiration Dates Came From
The origin of expiration dates is a classic life hack. By the 1970s, Americans had moved away from buying food from farms and small grocers and purchasing the bulk of their edibles from grocery stores. At the time, manufacturers started using special codes like the one above that told supermarkets when to rotate stock.
As you’d expect, someone deciphered these codes and released a small book, called Blind Dates: How to Break the Codes on the Foods You Buy. As the name suggests, the book walked consumers through how the codes worked so they could buy the freshest food. For a taste of how it all worked back then, this article published in 1978 from the Deseret News walks you through what the process was like.
As more and more consumers cracked the codes, more people started asking for some type of freshness label on their food. As they did, supermarkets and food suppliers voluntarily started including sell by dates on their food. As time went on, sell by dates became common, but consistency didn’t.
Congress introduced a few bills in the mid-’70s to regulate expiration dates, like the Open Dating Perishable Food Act of 1973 and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act but they all failed. So, states took the issue on themselves, which is why you see certain types of expiration dates in one state but not another.
States like Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska, and a handful of others don’t require any labels at all. Other states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia only require labels for milk and shellfish.
If you’re curious about just how disjointed the system is, this report from Natural Resources Defense Council (PDF) details which states require which labels. Basically, over the course of the last 40-plus years, expiration dates became a muddled mess because the requirements vary from state-to-state.
Nobody Really Regulates Expiration Dates
With the exception of infant formula, the federal government never stepped in to regulate expiration dates. Because of that, we have different terminology that all means different things. In most cases, those labels describe food quality and have nothing to do with food safety. As an example, let’s break down some of the most common terms:
Sell By: This tells the supermarket how long to display a product before rotating its stock.
Use by or Best Before: This tells you when to use the product by for the best flavor quality and has nothing to do with food safety.
Expiration Date: Expiration dates are typically meant as a suggestion for the last date you can consume food.
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