- Consumers are confused by what "Use By" and "Best If Used By" labels mean on their food, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. In an online study involving 2,607 U.S. adults, only 64% could correctly explain what the "Best If Used By" label meant. Just 44.8% were able to describe what the "Use By" label meant.
- Giving consumers a brief explainer of what each label meant increased the level of understanding. Post-explanation, 82% could correctly articulate what a "Best If Used By" label meant, and 82.4% properly explained what "Use By" meant.
- Date labeling is not federally standardized and has historically been more of a source of confusion than information about whether food is good to eat or should be thrown away.
The push for products to use the "Best If Used By" and "Use By" language came in 2017 from the former Grocery Manufacturers Association (now known as the Consumer Brands Association) and the former Food Marketing Institute (now known as the Food Industry Association). In December 2018, the former GMA did a survey and found that 87% of products had these labels, and 88% of consumers thought their meanings were clear. The Food and Drug Administration even supported the "Best If Used By" label in a signed letter from Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannis in May 2019.
This study makes it clear that in practice, the labels aren't as easy to understand as their early backers believed. Survey respondents were asked several questions about how they felt about food safety and how much they relied on date labels, and breaking down the responses shows some big problems. Of consumers who said they understood what the "Use By" label meant, nearly 55% could not correctly explain its meaning. And compared to consumers who said they only sometimes pay attention to date labels, a larger percentage of those who said they pay close attention to date labels and food safety issues could properly explain what they meant.
Here's what the labels mean: "Best If Used By" dates are on products that have a longer shelf life and refer to the amount of time that the food will be in optimal condition. A product that has passed this date may still be safe to eat, but the quality might not be as good. "Use By" dates are on perishable products with shorter shelf lives, and the date refers to when a product is expected to spoil and be unsafe. Products should be thrown away after this date. The study shared this information with participants using slightly varying messages and through a drawing showing a person using the date information to decide what to eat. All of the informative messages improved responses to a similar degree.
While this study shows that an educational campaign can help consumers correctly interpret what these labels mean, it's only a part of the puzzle. A 2019 study appearing in the journal Sustainability found that less than half of all products in grocery stores nationwide used these standardized labels. Regardless of how clear a label is, its potential effectiveness is diminished if it isn't widely used.
Perhaps what is truly needed is a national date labeling standard, which all products regulated by FDA would have to use. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine made this recommendation in their National Strategy to Reduce Food Waste at the Consumer Level report last year. Adding this regulation doesn't seem like a big stretch. In 2019, FDA put together a webpage stating its support of the "Best If Used By" date labeling convention. With a Democratic president now in office and leading an administration that looks more favorably on government regulations, it's more likely that the final step — making one standardized labeling convention mandatory — could take place. And with the platform of the federal government, educational messaging could more easily be created so that consumers truly do understand just what the dates on their food means.