Photo: Blend Images - Noel Hendrickson (Getty Images)

“Best by.” “Use by.” “Best if used by.” “Sell by.” Is there any difference? The government doesn’t regulate the labeled dates on the groceries we buy (baby formula is the sole exception), so these dates can be confusing to customers who are unsure whether a product is actually safe to eat past its stamped date. The dates on milk jugs, for example, aren’t expiration dates, and most cartons will taste fine for about a week after that. Now, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has decided to streamline these dates, urging its members to use one of just two phrases: “use by” or “best if used by.”

“It’s voluntary initiative, so we are urging our member companies to—when they make changes to package labelling—to align behind these two [phrases] to simplify and reduce confusion,” Roger Lowe of the Grocery Manufacturers Association tells The Takeout. “And in the process, this will reduce food waste and a waste of consumer’s money. Because if you throw out a product you could still use, you’re wasting money.”

The GMA announced this initiative last year with the goal of having members comply by summer 2018, a date that was chosen to coincide with the U.S. Food And Drug Administration’s deadline for food companies to update their products’ nutrition facts panel. The FDA has since extended that deadline to January 2020, but many of the GMA members have already updated their labelling dates: Lowe tells The Takeout that as of last November, 90 percent of the association’s members, which represent about 11,000 grocery items, have streamlined to use just one of the two label phrases.

According to the GMA, the phrase “best if used by” will “indicate to the consumer that, after a specified date, the product may not taste or perform as expected but can still be used or consumed.” So essentially, it’s a quality indicator, but food would still be safe to eat after the date had passed. A “use by” date would appear on a small number of “time- or temperature-sensitive products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after.” That phrase would indicate foods should be thrown away after the date had passed.

Makes sense, right? Our only question following this streamlining is: Why did this take so long to happen?

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