USDA Recommends “Best if Used By” Date for Food Product Dating

December 20, 2016By Riëtte van Laack

The meaning of product dating on foods and why companies use it (are they required to do so?) is a frequent question. With the exception of infant formula, which by regulation must include product dating, there are no federal regulations requiring product dating. (States may require product dating for certain products).

In the context of food waste, the practice of product dating comes up frequently. Why do companies include a “best by,” “sell by,” “best if used by,” “expiration date” or other similar date on their foods and is there a difference between these terms?

On December 14, 2016, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA issued an updated guidance on food product dating. According to FSIS, the industry’s use of a variety of statements such as “Sell-by” and “Use-by” on product labels to describe quality dates is confusing to the consumer and, as a result of misunderstanding about food product dating, the consumer discards more food than necessary.

In its updated guidance, FSIS claims that research shows that a “Best if Used By” date is best understood by the consumer as a quality date. Apparently, other terms such as “sell by” are more frequently interpreted as a date by which the food must be discarded because it has become unsafe. FSIS does not provide further information about the research that forms the basis of their recommendation. In the guidance FSIS explains that dating of food, be it the “best by,” “sell by,” “best if used by” date, is based on product analysis throughout storage, tests, or other information. In this testing, the companies use the conditions of handling, storage, preparation, and use printed on the label or commonly applied.

The date on the product is not relevant if a food is mishandled, e.g., a refrigerated food has been kept at room temperature for extended time. Generally, unless the food has been mishandled, a food need not be discarded until spoilage has occurred or there are other changes in wholesomeness. In fact, according to FSIS, food can still be donated after the “best if used by” date passes. Although FSIS appears concerned about food waste due to product dating, it does not make suggestions about a more standardized approach for companies to establish the “best if used by” product date.

Comments on this updated guidance may be submitted for 60 days after publication, i.e., until February 13, 2017.