If you've read those "BEST If Used By" and "USE By" labels at the grocery store and scratched your head, you're not alone. A recent study showed that the vast majority of shoppers misinterpret food date labels.
The food industry introduced the voluntary two-date labeling system in 2017: “USE By” is for safety and “BEST If Used By” tells you about quality.
But the recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found only 46% of consumers surveyed knew that “BEST If Used By” meant food quality may deteriorate after the date. And just 24% knew that “USE By” meant the food is unsafe to eat after that point. Catherine Turvey, one of the study’s authors, said, “Despite using the labels frequently, many people didn't understand the labels fully."
Turvey said the misunderstanding was common even after consumers viewed educational messages. "It seems that people have an unwarranted confidence that they understand what labels mean and that confidence may be getting in the way of people paying attention to educational messaging trying to correct misunderstandings," she adds.
Experts say if a product is past the “USE By” date, toss it. If it’s after the “BEST If Used By” date but stored appropriately, you can use your senses to determine whether to eat it. "You can tell that there's a change in your food because it smells sort of different or say it's chips - it doesn't have that crunch that you're looking for," says Turvey. "Then you can make a decision that the quality of the food has gone down enough that the food is no longer enjoyable."
She says understanding the labels will help avoid consuming bad food and reduce food and financial waste. According to Turvey, "When we waste food, we waste all of the resources that went into producing the food, transporting the food, storing the food, and waste food that could have been used to feed people."
There is currently no federally regulated standard for the date labels that appear on food products, except for infant formula. Experts say a federal labeling standard could reduce the confusion.