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The ridiculousness of best by dates and why we use them anyway

August 20, 2021

The “sell by” date is a pretty new thing. It all started in the 1950s, when one little store started using it. By the 1970s, it was the norm. And today, I dare to say that perishable products without a date somewhere on the package won’t sell nearly as well as those with one.

There’s a variety of different wordings for dates that go on food packages. As a consumer, it’s very important to understand the difference between them:

  • Packed on or Bottled on: The date the product was officially packaged for sale, which has nothing to do with the age of the product before it was packaged. Not to be confused with wine, where the date is the date the grapes were harvested and not the date it was bottled. 
  • Sell by: The date a product needs to be taken off the shelves and can no longer be sold to customers. A sell by date gives no indication of how long it will actually last. For example, Miller’s eggs come with a sell by date, but the eggs can last 6 weeks (or much longer) past that date.
  • Best by, Use by, or Expires on: This is an estimate of when a product will either spoil or significantly lose nutritional value or quality. For example, Miller’s milk comes with a best by date set two weeks past bottling. However, there are so many uses for sour milk. It doesn’t mean it’s unusable or unsafe past that date.
  • Best if used by: Kind of the same as above, but reworded to be a little more vague. The USDA is now promoting this language in an effort to reduce food waste. 

But here’s the thing - best by dates are completely made up.

When you take a minute to think about it, it totally makes sense. I mean, how can we magically know the exact date a product will go “bad”? There are so many variables - temperature, light, contaminants, handling, etc.

What if the manufacturer has everything temperature and humidity controlled but then the product travels in a truck for 24 hours in sweltering heat? What if a store has lots of beautiful natural light that reduces shelf life on some products? What if the product is cold and fresh when received but your fridge is unknowingly a warm 45F? What if you lick your spoon before going in for another taste of yogurt?

And here’s the kicker - with the exception of infant formula, the USDA does NOT regulate or require best by dates on any food. 

That’s right, dates on food are completely up to the discretion of the manufacturer.

So, why does Miller’s use best by dates? It’s a simple answer - it’s for you, the customer!

Back in the day, years ago, Miller’s didn’t use best by dates. In my house, there was a ritual when unpacking my weekly farm order. Take each item out of the bag → put it on the counter → dry it with a towel → write the date on the lid with a Sharpie → put it in the fridge. 

I want to know, with certainty, which jar to open next - the oldest of course!

But now my ritual is much shorter. And, it’s all because of the best by dates! I’m probably collectively saving hours per year. No more drying the lids. No more Sharpies. Just stick it in the fridge and done.

On the flip side, there is a dark side to best by dates - food waste. The FDA estimates that 20% of food waste is because of confusion due to date labeling.

I’ve totally done it. I’ve tossed food past the provided date without actually testing to see if it’s ok. I get it. It’s easy. And, you avoid the potentially unpleasant experience of smelling rotten food. Yuck!

But, with this knowledge, I now have power. I am aware of the arbitrariness of food dating and can make a choice.

So, what do you think? Do you like best by and sell by dates? Do you toss food when it passes the date or keep using it? Should best by dates be part of the food future we’re creating together?

Marie Reedell

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