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Study shows new evidence that consumers are confused by date labels on food items

As food waste issues are attracting increasing attention from research and policy arenas, regulation changes regarding date label use on food items in the United States have been proposed because of concerns that date labels may confuse consumers about the quality and safety of food items and hence cause waste. For instance, the proposed 2016 Food Date Labeling Act seeks to consolidate existing date labels in various types, such as “sell by”, “best by”, “use by”, “best if use by”, and “fresh by”, into two: a label that indicates food quality: “best if used by”; and a label that indicates food safety: “expires on.”

The current regulations in the U.S. on food date labels vary significantly across states. For instance, in New York, manufacturers are not required to put date labels on food items, whereas in Alabama manufacturers are required to use date labels but have the freedom to choose from 21 options. As Leib et al. (2013) state “there is no industry consensus surrounding which date label prefix should be applied to different categories of food products.” They also note that “use by” “… is a manufacturer’s indication of the ‘last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.’”

Reducing food waste via regulating date labels requires a thorough understanding of consumers’ perceptions of these date labels. A recent published study in the Journal of Food Products Marketing attempts to investigate consumers’ perceptions of date labels over different food items and attributes. During this study, 201 non-student consumers were surveyed about their understanding of two date labels (“best by” and “use by”) on two types of food products (deli meat and spaghetti sauce). The respondents’ understanding is measured with a five-point Likert score (1 to 5, standing for strongly disagree to strongly agree) for four attributes (Safety, Nutrition, Quality, and Taste). An example Likert question used in the study is, “For spaghetti sauce, ‘use by’ means: safety”; the respondents choose one of five levels ranging from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree” to express their beliefs about the statement. The survey was conducted between November 2016 and March 2017 in Auburn, AL and Ithaca, NY.

The study suggests that consumers perceive different meanings of date labels by the attributes and foods. They tend to agree more that “use by” means “safety” and “nutrition” than “best by” does. “Best by” also does mean “safety,” although to a lesser extent than “use by” does. On the other hand, consumers tend to agree more that “best by” means “quality” and “taste” than “use by” does. For food item with shorter shelf-life (deli meat in this study), consumers tend to agree more on these attributes than for food item with longer shelf-life (spaghetti sauce in this study). Our results show that consumers have different understanding about the meaning of date labels and that their understanding may deviate from what manufacturers actually want to convey. We also find that consumers’ understanding is affected by their age, income level, race, and education.

Although the findings of this study provide some supporting evidence for using “expires on” to indicate safety and “best if used by” for quality proposed in the 2016 Food Date Labeling Act, it questions the effectiveness of the two-label regime in this act. This is because the study shows that although consumers associate “best by” less with safety than with quality or taste, they do still associate “best by” with safety. That association may lead some consumers to waste edible food labeled with “best if used by” as the labeled date approaches due to safety concerns.

The study is part of a larger ongoing project in which we examine the effects of date labels on food waste based on experimental approaches. We are particularly interested in investigating the roles of consumers’ risk and loss preferences in the relationship between date labels and food waste.



Leib, E. B., Gunders, D., Ferro, J., Nielsen, A., Nosek, G., & Qu, J. (2013). The dating game: How confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America. Retrieved from

Norbert L. W. Wilson, Ruiqing Miao, and Carter Weis. 2018. Seeing Is Not Believing: Perceptions of Date Labels over Food and Attributes. Journal of Food Products Marketing 24(5): 611-631. DOI: 10.1080/10454446.2018.1472700.


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