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Reuters reports that a new study from Harvard University and the Natural Resources Defense Council "found that dates printed on packaged foods, which help retailers cycle through stocked products and allow manufacturers to indicate when a product is at its peak freshness, are inconsistent." While they are seen as being a managed, consistent system, in fact "manufacturers often decide on their own how to calculate shelf life and what the dates mean. A lack of binding federal standards on labeling means the dates are governed by a patchwork of state and local laws ... They confuse consumers, leading many to throw out food before it actually goes bad."

According to the story,"The authors recommended that 'sell-by' dates be invisible to consumers so they cannot be misinterpreted as safety labels; that a clear, uniform date label system be established; and that 'smart labels' that rely on technology to provide food safety information be used more frequently."

The story quotes David Fikes, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, as saying that FMI "agreed there had to be a clearer way for the consumer to read dates. However, it disagreed the code should be hidden, because that would make it difficult for store employees to stock shelves."

The Reuters piece notes that there never has been a serious food safety problem in the US related to sell-by dating. However, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) called for a consistent federal food dating system: "Under the current patchwork of state and federal laws, consumers are left in the lurch, forced to decipher the differences between 'sell-by' and 'best if used by,' and too often food is either thrown out prematurely, or families wind up consuming dangerous or spoiled food."
KC's View:
Confusing? Yes. Dangerous? Not much. As the story notes, consumers often ignore package dating and go with their guts, throwing out food that seems suspicious, even if the date says it should still be good.

I don't know that this needs to be a high priority, but as a consumer, I'm always amused by the variation in what is said on different products. A clear, consistent system would be better in the long run, if only because it moves the industry toward a broader strategy of transparency.