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Grocers and Manufacturers Unite to Clear Up Confusion on Expiration Labels

Zach Brooke

Browse the aisles of your local supermarket, and what do you see indicating the freshness of a particular item? Sell by. Use by. Enjoy by. Best before. Expires on. Display until. Etc. 

So many phrases attempt to give consumers an understanding of a product’s shelf life, but their meanings are nebulous. For years, the bevy of terms used to denote the longevity of packaged foods at grocery stores has created confusion instead of clarity.


It’s a problem that has significant real-world implications. In 2013, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and Natural Resources Defense Council teamed up to produce a report that found Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food each year, valued at approximately $29 billion. Research conducted by the U.K. sustainability nongovernmental organization, Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) indicates 20% of that waste comes from uncertainty over the meaning of freshness labels. Leading food waste reduction nonprofit ReFED estimates that standardizing food labels could save 400,000 tons of food from being wasted each year.


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Zach Brooke is a former AMA staff writer turned freelance journalist. His work has been featured in Chicago magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, A.V. Club and VICE, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Zach_Brooke.