America’s food-expiration labels are essentially meaningless: Dates don’t have to be scientifically derived and are little more than attempts to persuade consumers to eat products at optimal quality (fresher means repeat customers). There’s the whole business of deciphering terms like “sell by,” “best by,” “best before,” and “use by”; plus, the USDA has actually found the dates are so arbitrary, some products could last another 18 months anyway. Worse, there’s no federal standard, but there is a patchwork of state and local laws that a recent Harvard study likened to “the Wild West.”
Thankfully, two members of Congress have finally introduced a bill to help fix this mess. Their legislation would create a uniform federal labeling system that, among other things, neatly separates labels into two types — those dealing with peak freshness, and those dealing with actual food safety. “Before taking a swig of milk, many Americans glance quickly at the date label and toss it away, without realizing that it still may be perfectly safe to consume,” says Senator Richard Blumenthal, who’s one of the sponsors. The USDA says 36 pounds of food are wasted per person in the U.S. every month, and the bill’s backers argue too much is because of confusion about whether things have gone bad. This system just makes common sense, they say — it would help consumers save money on grocery bills, keep perfectly safe food from being chucked into the trash, and, should you not care about either of those, even increase the amount that can be donated to hungry people.