Calls for Removing ‘Sell-By’ Dates

Jun 17, 2009
Bernice Hurst

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing
Editor, RetailWire

Included in a lengthy
list of recommendations on reducing packaging waste recently published
by British Environment Minister, Hilary Benn, was
one that really grabbed headline writers. Mr. Benn suggested that one reason
for excessive food waste was consumer misunderstanding of label terminology.
Not understanding the difference between “sell-by,”
“best before” and “use by” apparently means that many
err on the side of caution, sending large amounts of perfectly edible food
to landfill sites each year.

Benn’s suggestion that labels be simplified, eliminating sell-by dates,
met with protests from retailers. According
to the BBC, Stephen Robertson, director general of the British
Retail Consortium, insisted that it wouldn’t reduce food waste and that
“education” would be a better solution. He also emphasized,
“Retailers are working with the government to improve understanding
and to help customers make better choices about buying, storing and using
food at home.”

Mr. Benn did not dispute
the need for education but explained that guidelines and terminology are
confusing, leading people to dispose of still edible items in huge quantities.
Instructions could be improved, he told the BBC, by focusing on
whether food was still safe to eat by a certain date.

Sell-by and display-until
labels are generally used for stock control and have little relevance to
consumers. Best-before dates are more about quality than safety, according
to official advice from the Food Standards Agency (FSA). When the date
runs out it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin
to lose flavor and texture. It is the use-by date that is crucial. The
FSA is currently looking at ways to make both more easily understood, however.

For food that is discarded,
Mr. Benn suggests it be collected separately and fed into anaerobic digesters
for conversion into electricity. This echoes policy recently adopted in
San Francisco, which Mayor Gavin Newsom says makes it the first American
city “to require residents to separate food scraps and other compostable
material.” Like his label proposal, Mr. Benn’s food recycling thoughts
have met with a variety of predictable (and a few unpredictable) protests.

The overall report, titled Making
the Most of Packaging
, focuses on much broader issues around reducing
packaging and waste as well as recycling but the section on food has
attracted the most attention. The statistics in the report are another
indication, if one were needed, that confusion reigns. The fine line
designating “too much information” continues to be a frontline
in an ongoing battle over where it should be drawn.

Discussion questions:
Do you think “sell-by” or “best before” labeling
is too restrictive and confusing and often leads to good food being thrown
away? Should retailers and suppliers be working more proactively to educate
consumers on what these
labels mean?

commentary] On June 15, the FSA revealed research that
“people over the age of 60 are more likely than younger people to take
risks with ‘use by’ dates.”

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18 Comments on "Calls for Removing ‘Sell-By’ Dates"

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Al McClain
Al McClain
11 years 10 months ago

It would be nice to have some standardization–a ‘good, better, best’ kind of thing. Maybe:
“Best Quality if used by”
“Safe to use until”
“DO NOT USE after”.

We need to keep it simple for all types of consumers.

Ryan Mathews
11 years 10 months ago

The answer to the first question is “No.” The answer to the second question is “Yes.”

Sell by or best use dating is an important weapon in the food safety arsenal. That said, clearly some consumers believe that a sell by date means a product isn’t safe to consume past the date. So, yes, education is once again a good thing.

Marc Gordon
Marc Gordon
11 years 10 months ago

So what’s the real goal here? To reduce food wasted by consumers throwing it out too soon, or retailers throwing it out too soon?

From what I have seen, labeling in Canada and the US feature best before dates on products that have a limited shelf life. It’s up to the dealers to sell these products and consumers to consume them by those dates. Seems simple enough to me.

Which leads to the question, what does sour cream taste like when it goes bad?

Gene Detroyer
11 years 10 months ago
“Sell-by” seems pretty clear. If the sell-by date comes up, the retailer takes the product off the shelf. If Mr. Benn is suggesting that good product is being wasted because it is still good after the “sell-by” date, then the date is in error, not the direction to not sell it after a certain date. “Best before” seems pretty clear also. If the product is used after a particular date, its quality will denigrate. It also means that the shopper won’t and shouldn’t be expected to purchase that product if they are not planning to use it by that date. Again, is Mr. Benn suggesting that the shopper should purchase “A” quality product only to get “B” quality satisfaction? If one is baking a cake and the recipe says to bake it for an hour, but we leave it in for an hour and a half, that cake is still edible, but not very enjoyable. It sounds as if Mr. Benn is expecting people to buy and use less than the quality of product they… Read more »
Joan Treistman
11 years 10 months ago
I have been testing packaging for over thirty years. There’s no question in my mind that retailers and manufacturers do not fully understand how consumers interact with labeling. Education is not the answer here. What is required is taking the time to conduct the research (a very simple approach) to uncover the words which convey the desired meaning. Marketers and retailers get caught up in their own rhetoric and assume shoppers will “get it.” This is an unwarranted assumption. From a study of mine and probably your own experience think about how few consumers understand the difference between “extra virgin” and “extra light” olive oil. These phrases are prominent on the label, but have little, if any, meaning.It’s no wonder that “sell by,” “best before” or any similar phrase is misunderstood. And now consider the global implications when manufacturers simply translate the words on their labels. OMG. The first step is to determine what you want to say (OBJECTIVE). The second step is to find out the best way to convey that meaning to consumers… Read more »
Ben Ball
11 years 10 months ago
I think I still have a couple of visible scars from the wars fought over open code dating of salty snack products. Sales, distributors, vendors and retailers all resisted it because of the perception that it would increase costs by forcing them to pull perfectly safe product out of the market. Marketing, QC and R&D all fought for it for “improved consumer eating experiences” and protection of the brand. The battle royale that took place was a marketer’s nightmare, with everyone from the manufacturing group to the retailer arguing real hard dollar costs while we argued the ephemeral imagery of “an improved consumer experience.” Sound like fun? You try it. Of course, protocols have evolved to protect retailers (the manufacturer credits them for out of code product removed from the shelf) and systems have improved to the point that the cost to the food system of removing “sell before” product is manageable. But there is no doubt that consumers who take food labeling literally are throwing away product at home that they COULD eat. The… Read more »
Warren Thayer
11 years 10 months ago

I liked Al McClain’s idea. but I’d simplify it to “Best quality if used by” and “Do not use after.” Then I’d throw in some education.

Steve Montgomery
11 years 10 months ago

These dates are used by both retailers and consumers. Retailers use them to rotate product (hopefully) to insure that the oldest product is sold first (put that way it does sound as a particularly nice practice). I’ll assume all the readers understand the value of product rotation. The second purpose is to make sure that they don’t sell any out of code merchandise. Consumers use them to guide both their purchases (uh oh–close to the date/shouldn’t buy) and consumption (hey it’s close to the date/try see if it’s ok).

To answer the specific questions, yes I would like to see some standardization. With the various coding terminology, it is possible for the consumers to be confused as to the true meaning–does ‘do not sell’ = ‘best if sold by’ or ‘consumed by’? The answer to the second question is possibly, but to do that the terms have to mean the same thing and we all know they don’t or might not…or do they?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
11 years 10 months ago

Reading the comments, the issue appears to be whether the information is standardized and whether consumers know what the data means. The question is NOT whether the information is useful.

Jonathan Marek
11 years 10 months ago

I third Al McClain’s idea! I will admit to be a confused consumer on this issue. Al’s idea gets me through the confusion, distinguishing when the product might be less tasty versus when I might die. Those two outcomes are pretty different to me and ought to be distinguished!

Tonia Key
Tonia Key
11 years 10 months ago

Don’t mess with anything here in NYC! The sell by and best by dates for my milk are rather accurate. I know that the milk from my supermarket (where the milk is stored in those open refrigerators) will go bad by the best by date. I know the milk from the nearby corner store (where the milk is stored in a very cold closed refrigerator) will be good for days after the use by date. I am very adept to utilizing those dates to my advantage based upon where I purchase my milk.

Matt Hahn
Matt Hahn
11 years 10 months ago

Sell-By dates probably lead to more food waste as consumers are unsure of how long the product can be used/consumed after that date. Is the rule of thumb a week? A couple of days? “Best if used by” dates are more definitive and would reduce unnecessary waste.

Rick Moss
11 years 10 months ago

I’ll side with those who think all the date designations need better clarification for consumers. “Best if used by” is perhaps the most practical, but there are so many variables that can render the date useless. Consider freezing, for example. My mother-in-law was of the belief that once in her vertical deep freeze, food was good for generations. We once joked that we’d found a mastodon steak at the bottom, hidden below some Stouffer’s lasagna from 1973. Consumers need more information and I believe it could be done clearly on the package with some smart design decisions.

Craig Sundstrom
11 years 10 months ago

“Best-before dates are more about quality than safety, according to official advice from the Food Standards Agency (FSA). When the date runs out it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose flavor and texture. It is the use-by date that is crucial.”

This sounds pretty well-defined to me…I suspect Mr. Benn has “solved” a problem that doesn’t exist (and let’s hope he didn’t do something environmentally uncool like printing his report on paper!)

Also missing from this discussion is the liability issue (perhaps a bigger problem in the US than the UK): food doesn’t “go bad” on some precise schedule: a given product might spoil, say, on average at 50 days, but it could be as early as 20 or as late as 90; obviously the dating is going to play it safe and give a “use by” date (even) less than 20, even though in almost all instances the item is still safe; wasteful? perhaps…but also safer.

Ralph Jacobson
11 years 10 months ago

Let’s not make brain surgery out of this. I can see there is just a little passion on the topic. Let’s pick the words we want and run with it. I would not recommend eliminating the open coding, however.

The other issue that I didn’t see here yet is the people at the store level. The system is only as good as the stock clerks doing the product rotation. If the SKU is a bear to rotate…well then…God only knows how well the process works…and perhaps also the consumer who buys the new stuff that was in front of the old.

Marge Laney
11 years 10 months ago

Wow! I evidently am one of the idiots that fill the landfills with perfectly good product. I always figured that if it wasn’t good enough to sell, it certainly wasn’t good enough to eat! I’m all for Al’s plan.

Patrick Bastow
Patrick Bastow
11 years 10 months ago
I think Mr. Benn is onto to something here but it’s nowhere near as easy to implement as he probably imagines. Some products (potted ornamentals, potted herbs etc) don’t need a sell-by or best-before or use-by label but some UK retails have to work with them across grocery. Sell-by dates on products that don’t really have a breakdown issue aren’t needed. Stores that use them on potted plants, for example, are just increasing the risk of in-store wastage and markdowns. Some other retailers use a flower code on ornamentals which gives an indication as to when the product went into store but its up to the store when to ditch the product. This approach works well and keeps wastage to a mimimum. However, flower codes work well except during price promotions. Then it becomes more difficult as under UK law you can’t sell a product with a price flash after the promo has finished and without a date code you would get huge wastage at the end of a promo. Date codes work well during… Read more »
Robert Cohen
Robert Cohen
11 years 10 months ago

It’s interesting that so much emphasis is placed on the “TIME” element of shelf life of perishable food, when by far the major influence on shelf life is “TEMPERATURE.” The “use by” or “best before” dates rely on average temperatures assumed by manufacturers and are almost by definition wrong (either too short when the chill chain is good, or too long when the there has been temperature abuse). Technology exists today for low cost, accurate “smart use by dates” in the form of time/temperature indicators that give a visual indication as to the true shelf life left by means of a clear color change or visual signal.

Adopting this technology could both increase food safety and decrease the amount of good food thrown away. Unfortunately, while consumers LOVE this concept, retailers and manufacturers are hesitant to adopt the technology for fear of returns, liability issues etc. One does get the impression however that the world is headed in this direction, and that “use by” or “best before” dates will definitely become intelligent in the future.


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