Best Enjoyed By

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Every day, workers at grocery stores and convenience stores in Montana carry out a sad ritual.

Ken Carson:
“First thing I do when I come on in is I go check the rotation on my milk and check my dates, of course.”

Roman Mars:
That’s Ken Carson. He’s a dairy manager at a grocery store in Montana and every day when he gets in, he checks the sell-by date on his milk. If it’s past the date, the milk must be thrown out.

Ken Carson:
“These are all 20’s that I’m pulling off. This one is dated the 18th and I will have to pour this one down the drain. I have probably six of them.”

Roman Mars:
Ken is originally from Washington State where he also worked in the grocery business.

Ken Carson:
“When I came here four years ago, I had no idea that they were pouring down as much milk down the drain as they have been. In fact, it was repulsive and sickening in the first couple of weeks here, it was hundreds of gallons. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Meradith Hoddinott:
Pouring out milk happens to some extent in grocery stores all over the country.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Meredith Hoddinott.

Meradith Hoddinott:
Though Montana throws much more of it down the drain than most places because the sell-by date on the milk is required by state law to be just 12 days after pasteurization.

Roman Mars:
The industry standard is 21 days.

Meradith Hoddinott:
After these 12 days, Montana law requires that the milk be thrown away. It can’t be sold or donated.

Ken Carson:
It seems such a waste. You’ve got families who are in need and we’re doing this.

Roman Mars:
Montana is throwing out so much milk, in fact, the price of milk there is about $2 per gallon higher than it is in surrounding states.

Meradith Hoddinott:
And it’s all because of this date label. In theory, Montana’s strict date label law is about food safety and protecting the consumer, but it hasn’t been updated since the 80s.

Roman Mars:
Date labels of course aren’t just on milk, they’re on a lot of products.

Emily Broad Leib::
‘Use-by’, ‘sell-by’, ‘best by’, ‘best if used by’, but then some products say ‘expires on’ or have an ‘E-X-P’ which you know is a shorthand for ‘expires.’

Meradith Hoddinott:
This is Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. She did a tally of all the different kinds of date labeling.

Emily Broad Leib::
What we found was that 41 states required a date label on at least some food product.

Meradith Hoddinott:
She says there are huge inconsistencies, not just in the wording but in the meaning of these labels. Some states require them only on dairy, some on shellfish, some on any perishable foods.

Emily Broad Leib::
And then 20 of those states actually restrict the sale or donation of food after the date. Some of them are quite strict, some of them flat out ban the sale or donation of food after the date and some of them just say, “We’re going to make it complicated.”

Meradith Hoddinott:
The powers that be have definitely succeeded in making it complicated to decipher these dates or to know how to act on them, for large retailers and individual consumers alike.

Emily Broad Leib::
This is a bad system. It’s not making people safer. It’s leading to food waste and the dates really aren’t safety based.

Meradith Hoddinott:
That’s right. The date labels on our food are not about food safety and they were never actually meant to be.

Roman Mars:
But, let’s back up. It all began in the 1970s. Americans had moved farther away from their food sources. They were eating more packaged foods and getting more of their food in supermarkets.

Meradith Hoddinott:
And they wanted a way to measure how fresh their food was.

Roman Mars:
Most manufacturers already put encrypted dates on their products to help retailers rotate stock.

Meradith Hoddinott:
And consumers craved access to this information.

Roman Mars:
In 1977, the New York State Consumer Protection Board published a booklet called “Blind Dates: How To Break The Codes On The Foods You Buy.” The booklet told consumers how to decipher the encrypted date codes on their favorite products. The board distributed more than 10,000 copies and posted the booklet in supermarkets.

Meradith Hoddinott:
Eventually, consumers started to demand that these dates be put clearly on packages, that they shouldn’t have to get a special book and decipher a code.

Roman Mars:
And that seems pretty reasonable.

Emily Broad Leib::
Consumers ask for it – date labels – so retailers and grocery stores responded. But at that time, everyone acknowledged this is really about quality and about freshness. No one said, “I want a label because I’m afraid it won’t be safe.”

Meradith Hoddinott:
So a few states began to regulate these date labels.

Emily Broad Leib::
Massachusetts was the first state that actually required date labels on food.

Roman Mars:
But there was no federal-level regulation even though there were a number of attempts.

Emily Broad Leib::
And one Congress, I think from 1973 to 75 there were ten bills on date labeling standardization. None of them passed.

Meradith Hoddinott:
Law makers disagreed about what the system should look like and who should oversee it.

Emily Broad Leib::
The Food and Drug Administration has actually said, “We could do this. We have the power to do it for the foods we oversee.”

Meradith Hoddinott:
But since these labels were about freshness and not about safety, ultimately the FDA said-

Emily Broad Leib::
“It’s not something we want to spend the time and energy on.”

Roman Mars:
Still consumers wanted freshness dates, so all kinds of different ones popped up. Some were stamped on, some printed on the label. There was no consistency in how this information was displayed or the language that was used.

Voiceover:
“Use-by, sell-by, best by, best if used by, expires on, EXP.”

Roman Mars:
Some companies even tried to promote these dates to sell their products like, “Hey, buy Pepsi because it’s going to give you the date to tell you it’s fresher than all the other soft drinks.

Pepsi Ad:
“Some things just don’t need a date stamped on them to tell you how fresh they are. Not so with diet colas, until now. Now diet Pepsi introduces freshness dating from Diet Pepsi.”

Meradith Hoddinott:
Some date labels were meant for consumers, while others were just meant for retailers and as is still true now, there were no clear definitions for any of the phrases, no consistency, even within the same brand or product. Dates could differ from state to state, manufacturer to manufacturer or store to store.

Roman Mars:
And over the years we’ve lost track of what these labels meant in the first place.

Emily Broad Leib::
As time goes on and on and more and more people grow up just being used to having labels on their food, no one’s ever said to them what they mean and what they don’t.

Meradith Hoddinott:
So we’ve made some false connections.

Emily Broad Leib::
So people in their head have made this link and thought, “Well, I heard about someone getting salmonella or E coli and I see this label on my food and these two things are somehow connected to one another.”

Meradith Hoddinott:
But Emily says, as much as we might want them to, these dates are not going to tell us if our food will make us sick.

Emily Broad Leib::
People keep saying, “But I just want to know when it will be safe until.” It’s scientifically impossible to sort of say there’s a date after which it will become unsafe.

Roman Mars:
Milk is actually a good example of this.

Meradith Hoddinott:
If you run a few errands on a hot day before getting your milk home, your milk will spoil faster and once it’s in the fridge, it’ll last longer at say 35 degrees, then at 40 degrees. There’s just too many variables.

Roman Mars:
But here’s the thing about spoiled milk.

Emily Broad Leib::
Spoiled milk doesn’t mean it has pathogens in it.

Roman Mars:
That’s because the harmful pathogens in milk are removed during the pasteurization process along with most other bacteria.

Meradith Hoddinott:
The big misconception around date labels is that people think that old food will make them sick, but for the most part, old food doesn’t make you sick. Contaminated food does.

Roman Mars:
The longer a carton of milk exists, the more chance it has to come into contact with contaminants that could grow and flourish inside that milk and hurt you. But as long as it’s properly pasteurized, there’s nothing about the age specifically that makes milk dangerous to drink.

Meradith Hoddinott:
There is however, a small handful of foods that can become unsafe with age-

Roman Mars:
Deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses, smoked seafood stuff in the deli section of the grocery store, basically.

Meradith Hoddinott:
These foods have a high risk for listeria, a bacteria that can be life-threatening and in these cases, listeria risk does increase with time. But our current date labeling system doesn’t treat this small subset of foods any differently than any other date labeled item.

Roman Mars:
Most state labels are arrived at by conducting taste tests.

Emily Broad Leib::
They sit people around a table and then they have everyone eat their product.

Meradith Hoddinott:
Say it’s yogurt. They taste a batch made that day and then they taste some from the day before and the day before that.

Emily Broad Leib::
And they say, “What did you think? Was it good? Was a tasty? Did it have the properties you expect from yogurt?”

Meradith Hoddinott:
And when the manufacturer comes to a batch that people say, “I don’t really like the way this tastes.”

Emily Broad Leib::
They say, “Okay, well after that many days our product’s not going to be at its peak.” And that’s where the date really comes from.

Roman Mars:
So the dates on our food are arrived at through a taste test or sometimes, especially with smaller companies, they just guess.

Emily Broad Leib::
They’ve said, “I feel awful about it, but we don’t have money to bring in and do this whole taste test. We just look online for an estimate of how long this food will be fresh.” Or they say, “I only keep it in my refrigerator for three days, so I’ll put three days on it.” Some of them are very un-scientific about where that date actually comes from.

Meradith Hoddinott:
And yet today, according to a report that Emily Broad Leib co-authored, a majority of consumers believe that eating food past its sell-by or use-by date is a risk to their health. And as many as 90% of Americans throw out food based on date labels, at least occasionally.

Doug Rauch:
We’re throwing out billions of pounds of food here in America simply because of misunderstanding of those code dates.

Ken Carson:
This is Doug Rauch, former President of Trader Joe’s. He’s been in the grocery business for more than 40 years. In 2015, he founded Daily Table, a non-profit retail store that sells pre-made meals, sourced from food that would otherwise be wasted.

Doug Rauch:
We waste a staggering amount of food. The average American wastes somewhere between 20 and 25% of the food they acquire.

Roman Mars:
And it’s not just wasting the food, it’s wasting the water to grow it, the transportation to get it to the supermarket, everything that goes into getting food to your plate.

Meradith Hoddinott:
Doug and Emily both say that to make date labels serve us better and to waste less food, we need to consider the language we’re using. Sell-by, use-by.

Emily Broad Leib::
Enjoy by. Like, what does that mean?

Meradith Hoddinott:
And the idea of an expiration date is problematic, too.

Doug Rauch:
If something’s expired, it’s dead. If your credit cards expire, it’s dead. You can’t use it. Heaven forbid your dog expired, there’s no more life. Well, no one’s interested in expired food. No one’s interested in eating dead food.

Roman Mars:
I actually prefer most of my food dead, but the point is this. When food is perceived as inedible, you can’t do anything with it. Nobody wants to eat it and he can’t give it to a food pantry. And a lot of states have laws that actually forbid the donation of so-called expired food.

Meradith Hoddinott:
Emily suggests only using the term “expired” for foods that actually do become unsafe at the time: those un-pasteurized cheeses and deli meats.

Roman Mars:
For everything else, she would go with “best if used by.”

Emily Broad Leib::
So there would be two labels: “expires on” and “best if you used by” and this would be a standardized system used all across the country.

Roman Mars:
Creating standardized, easy to understand date labels is a design problem that must have a design solution. Maybe Emily’s suggested labels or maybe something else entirely. The fix doesn’t seem like it should be that hard and yet…

Emily Broad Leib::
Most of the time when we say “This is an issue, it needs to change.” People say, “I agree it’s a terrible issue.” But then, people really get stuck up on, “Well, which phrase should we use and how do we decide which foods have which one?”

Roman Mars:
These are the very same questions that tied up regulation the first time around in the 1970s but the stakes are different this time because food waste is now a part of a national conversation.

Meradith Hoddinott:
The EPA and USDA announced a goal to cut food waste in the US in half by 2030 and having a better date labeling system is one way to get there. But for now Emily is happy to help settle your more micro-level disputes. Basically the answer is: trust your taste, not the date.

Emily Broad Leib::
The story that I heard most from friends, from family, from colleagues, and I continue to hear now is that someone says, “I’m so glad you put this report out because I’ve been telling my wife for years that the dates don’t matter and now I’m really vindicated.” Or vice versa.

Roman Mars:
So instead of arguing over date labels, you should take part in that other ritual that happens between spouses in front of the refrigerator where you open up a dodgy carton of something or other and ask “Does this smell okay to you?”

  1. I love this particular podcast. I’m almost always mindful of the amount of food/water I take and make sure I eat as appropriate and help my friends and family come to understand this, too.

  2. Naama

    Hi,
    What’s the name of the food podcast you mentioned at the end? I didn’t get the name.
    Thanks!

  3. Sandra Robinson

    Several years ago I volunteered at our county food bank. We were instructed to throw out every container of food where the expiration date was not legible. At the end of the day, we filled an entire trash vat! Can you imagine how many people would not have gone hungry that day? When I do my weekly food shopping, it is frustrating to find what is freshest, and how to interpret the labeling to make sure I dont purchase something out of date. But, what is out of date? You cant tell because very few items actually say “expire by …..”. Not only this, but trying to find a date at all is time consuming because each manufacturer of every product stamps the dates on different parts of the container. I personally would appreciate a LEGIBLE
    EXPIRATION date on every container. Let me be the one who determines the date your product is best used by!

  4. Creighton

    I am the one in the family who can tell when milk goes bad. Ever since I was a kid, I have always smelled the milk before I poured it to make sure it had not spoiled. That is the truest test. I find that skim milk seems to last the longest without going bad. And I have had yogurt that has passed it’s best by date by a couple weeks (since it’s sealed and pasteurized). The only food I’ve ever gotten sick on is chicken. Several times. Usually at someone’s BBQ. So now, I do not eat Chicken at cookouts.

    The being said, in Montana(?) could stores not mark down the milk on the last day? Perhaps, have a sign “Milk with todays’ date is half-price”. That would keep the store from having to throw it out. And many people would appreciate getting a deal on milk, and the store would not have to take a total loss. Or else donate it that day to a food bank. Maybe it’s ‘cheaper’ for the store to dump it rather than sell it for a lower price? But it’s a shame to see it go to waste.

    I think the wording change from EXPIRATION to BEST BY is a good one, since people think that, magically, once that EXPIRATION day has hit, the food is spoiled and they have to throw it out. By saying BEST BY, the consumer will know that it still may be OK, but not quite as fresh, and not waste it.

    1. Maya

      Organic milk last the longest without going bad as it uses a different pasteurization process (ultra-pasteurization). One of the few organic products I actually buy.

  5. As Oroweat Pete

    These codes are meant for the vendors to know when to pull product. I was bread and coffee salesman/merchant. Trust me all the so called stale bread and out of code coffe I pulled tasted great long paste the date on the product. Milk bought on the day of the pull date code once opened will still be good 5 days later. People need to use common sense which is on shirt supply, but come on. Unless your bread is hard or moldy it’s good bread

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