Unlike “use by” labels on perishable foods, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety and can cause people to throw away perfectly good food.

NEW YORK — As awareness grows around the world of the food waste problem one culprit in particular is getting a lot of attention: “best before” labels.

For decades, manufacturers have used labels to assess maximum freshness. Unlike the “use by” labels found on perishable foods such as meat and dairy products, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety and may encourage consumers to throw away foods that are perfectly fine to eat.

“They read these dates and then they think it’s bad, that they can’t eat them, and they throw them away, even though those dates don’t actually mean they’re not edible or they’re still not nutritious or tasty,” said Patty Apple, manager of Food Shift, a nonprofit organization in Alameda, Calif., that collects and uses expired or imperfect foods.

To tackle the problem, major UK chains such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have recently removed ‘best before’ labels from pre-packed fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a review of its labeling laws by the end of this year; it is considering doing away with best-before labels altogether.

In the US, there is no similar push to eliminate “good for use” labels. But momentum is growing to standardize language on date labels to educate shoppers about food waste, including from major grocery and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress.

“I really think the level of support for this has grown tremendously,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.

The United Nations estimates that 17% of global food production is wasted each year; most of it comes from households. In the US, up to 35% of available food goes uneaten, according to ReFED. This adds to the vast amounts of wasted energy—including water, land, and labor—that go into producing food—and to increased greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food ends up in landfills.

There are many reasons why food is wasted, from large portions to customers rejecting imperfect products. But ReFED estimates that 7% of food waste in the U.S. — or 4 million tons annually — is due to consumer confusion over the “best before” label.

Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to address consumer concerns about product freshness. There are no federal regulations governing them, and manufacturers have the right to determine when they think their products will taste best. Only infant formula should have a use-by date in the US

Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates about 80% of food in the US, has recommended that manufacturers use “best before” labels for freshness and “use by” for perishable items, based on surveys that show consumers understand that phrases.

But the effort is voluntary, and the wording on labels still varies widely, from “sell by” to “enjoy” to “freshest before.” A survey published in June by researchers at the University of Maryland found that at least 50 different date labels are used on U.S. grocery store shelves, causing confusion among shoppers.

“Most people think that if it says ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ you can’t eat any of it. It’s not really true,” said Richard Lipsitt, who owns Grocery Outlet in Pleasanton, Calif., which specializes in discount food.

Milk can be safely consumed within a week of its use-by date, Lipsitt said. Gunders said canned goods and many other packaged foods can be safely eaten for years past their expiration date. The FDA advises consumers to look for changes in color, consistency, or texture to determine whether products are safe to eat.

“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize signs of decay when food is no longer edible,” Gunders said. “We’ve lost faith in those feelings and replaced it with faith in those dates.”

Some British grocery chains actively encourage customers to use their senses. In January, Morrisons removed use-by dates from most store-bought milk and replaced them with a ‘best before’ label. The Co-op, another grocery chain, has done the same with its branded yogurts.

This is a change that some buyers support. Ellie Spanswick, a social media marketer in Falmouth, England, buys her produce, eggs and other products from farms and local stores when she can. The food doesn’t have labels, she said, but it’s easy to see that it’s fresh.

“The last thing we need to do is waste more food and money because it has a label on it that tells us it’s no longer edible,” Spanswick said.

But not everyone agrees. Ana Vetrau from London, who runs a home improvement business with her husband, worries that without labels, employees may not know which items to remove from the shelves. She recently bought a pineapple and only after cutting it open did she realize that it was rotting in the middle.

“We’ve had dates on these packages for the last 20 years or so. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?” said Vetrow.

Some US chains — including Walmart — have switched their store brands to standardized “best before” and “use by” labels. The Consumer Brands Association, which represents major food companies such as General Mills and Dole, also encourages members to use these labels.

“Uniformity makes it much easier for our companies to produce products and keep prices lower,” said Kathy Dennis, the association’s vice president of communications.

In the absence of federal policy, states have stepped in with their own laws, frustrating food companies and grocers. Florida and Nevada, for example, require a “sell by” date for shellfish and dairy products, while Arizona requires a “best by” or “use by” date for eggs, according to Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Law school.

The confusion has led some companies, such as Unilever, to support legislation now in Congress that would standardize U.S. date labels and ensure that food can be donated to rescue organizations even after the best-before date. At least 20 states currently prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date on the label because of fear of liability, Lieb said.

Clearer labeling and donation rules could help nonprofits like Food Shift, which trains chefs using salvaged food. It even makes dog treats from overripe bananas, reconstituted chicken fat and spent grains from the brewery, according to Apple.

“We definitely need to focus more on these small actions, like the use-by date labels, because even though it’s such a tiny part of this whole food waste problem, it can have a very big impact,” Apple said.