A 2013 study by Emily Broad Leib has received recent media coverage in the US on the podcast 99% Invisible. Best before dates are confusing, contribute a great deal to food waste, and tend to be regulated sector-by-sector, rather than in a cohesive, comprehensive, federal way.
The episode gives a brief history of best before dates in the United States, and urges listeners to use more “common sense” when deciding when to throw out food such as milk or other refrigerated products. It attempts to demystify a common fear of consumers: hearing a news story of a listeria outbreak, or a friend who contracted salmonella, and then looking to the date as the definitive “throw out” date.
The episode builds off growing interest in Best Before Dates in the US following a survey by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the National Consumer League and Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future. The survey reported that over 1/3 of adults regularly throw out food due to mistaken interpretations of what the Best Before Date means. Additionally, many respondents believed that Best Before Dates were federally mandated, even though a majority of date labeling is at the producer/distributor’s discretion.
Parts of Europe, especially in the UK, have made strides in banning all dates except for expiry dates in hopes that it will lead to less food waste at both the retailer and consumer levels. With the US EPA recently pledging to reduce food waste in half by 2030, a reform on inconsistent date labeling may be a good place to start.
For a list of media coverage relating to Leib’s study in particular, and food waste in general, check out Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation here.
You can listen to the podcast here: