Many Consumers Misinterpret Food (Best By / Use By) Expiration Date Labels

Best Before Expiration Date

Despite educational messaging clarifying the labels’ meaning, many consumers continued to misinterpret food date labeling.

Consumer education is needed to increase understanding of food date labels according to a new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Misunderstanding food date labeling is common and educational communications are needed to improve consumer understanding, according to a new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier.

Consumers Misinterpret Food Date Labels

Example of an illustrated message. Credit: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

Does it mean “spoiled — throw it out,” or “might not taste as good as it could anymore?” Food date labels (e.g., “USE By August 16”) can play an important role in helping consumers make informed decisions about food, and ultimately prevent unsafe consumption and waste of food. Researchers surveyed 2,607 adults in the United States to assess consumer understanding of the streamlined 2-date labeling system and explore the relative effectiveness of educational messages in increasing understanding.

“Our study showed that an overwhelming majority of consumers say that they use food date labels to make decisions about food and say they know what the labels mean,” said Catherine Turvey, MPH, Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Milken Institute School of Public Health, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA. “Despite confidently using date labels, many consumers misinterpreted the labels and continued to misunderstand even after reading educational messaging that explained the labels’ meaning.”

Less than half (46 percent) of study respondents knew that the “BEST If Used By” label specifically indicates that food quality may deteriorate after the date on the label. Less than one-quarter (24 percent) of study respondents knew that the “USE By” label means that food is not safe to eat after the date on the label.

Researchers explored if framing the messages with values like saving money or avoiding waste, would impact the effectiveness of messages at increasing consumer understanding. None of the seven value frames tested was significantly more effective at increasing understanding than another, but all messages significantly increased consumer’s general understanding of the labels.

After viewing educational messages, 37 percent of consumers still did not understand the specific meaning of the “BEST If Used By” label and 48 percent did not understand the specific meaning of the “USE By” label.

Misunderstanding food date labeling is common and educational communications are needed to improve consumer understanding, according to a new study. Credit: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

“Responses to the survey suggest that date labels are so familiar that some consumers believe they are boring, self-explanatory, or common sense despite misunderstanding the labels,” said Ms. Turvey. “Unwarranted confidence and the familiarity of date labels may make consumers less attentive to educational messaging that explains the food industry’s labeling system.”

Future communication campaigns will have to capture the attention of people who think they already know what date labels mean, find the information tedious, or are satisfied with a rough understanding of labels. Educating consumers about the meaning of the labels has growing implications for food waste and food safety as the 2-date labeling system becomes more widely adopted and gains support from non-profits and government institutions.

Reference: “Impact of Messaging Strategy on Consumer Understanding of Food Date Labels” by Catherine Turvey, MPH; Meghan Moran, PhD; Jennifer Sacheck, PhD; Ashley Arashiro, MPH; Qiushi Huang, MS, MPH; Katie Heley, MPH; Erica Johnston; and Roni Neff, PhD, 1 May 2021, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jneb.2021.03.007

9 Comments on "Many Consumers Misinterpret Food (Best By / Use By) Expiration Date Labels"

  1. The 10th Man | May 6, 2021 at 6:35 am | Reply

    You always go after the people least likely to change. The use by date is nothing but programmed obsolescence to get you to throw away a product and repurchase it.
    If we are confused, its been done on purpose. Stop blaming us for things we cannot possible effect.

  2. Usefulness of the article could have been enhanced if it included how to use the 2 labels.

  3. Cole M Jenkins | May 7, 2021 at 2:29 am | Reply

    My workplace not only requires that I remove food when past the “best by” date, we also must throw away anything that has been opened after three days, regardless of the printed date. This apparently is a regulatory requirement.

    • Show them this article

    • Common Sense | May 7, 2021 at 4:29 am | Reply

      I love when you open up the fridge at work and it’s full to the brim with days old food that’s been there for awhile. It’s not about it expiring, it’s about how a person doesn’t use food 24 hours a day on a 8 hour work day. Stop using work as a personal food storage. My company has 50 employees a day. The fridge is by far the worse issue. Without a line to cross, things would be in there indefinitely. You need to hold accountability of what’s in there and how long. It’s not unreasonable for your company to say hey use by the use by date. If you don’t like that put it in a custom dish with your own date on it? But I think it’s definitely more of the fact that your company kept having to deal with people leaving food in the fridge for weeks, blocking others from using it equally and properly.

  4. Common Sense | May 7, 2021 at 4:24 am | Reply

    I guess I only buy what I’m going to eat in a normal manner of time. None of my foods get close to the best buy date. Oddly it’s not because it’s safe to eat or not, but rather I like my food fresh and I don’t put it up to age. Maybe limit yourself on over buying? Don’t blame companies for people being stupid when all the knowledge is at their finger tips. Blame the older generations for being oblivious to everything common sense. They’re the biggest over buyers with the least amount of research on what they’re doing.

  5. What he said!I fail to see how it’s consumers who are at fault when the messaging fails to convey the meaning they say they are intending.
    I ignore most of them and instead use my eyes, nose and sometimes taste too decide of good it’s good as long as I begotten it’s been handled properly. Capitalism dictates that note profit can be generated by telling consumers to throw away perfectly good food and buy more based upon a seemingly bogus good label. Since we can’t know if food has been properly handled all along the supply chain we must instead make our decision based upon observation. While I’m aware disease-causing bacteria can be present without any observable indicator, I’m forced to make my own judgements irregardless of food packaging.

  6. So what is the point of the survey
    No info was given about the meaning of the labelling

  7. this became a bigger issue during 2020. Donations to food banks typically have some expired goods, but the outpouring of well meant donations that were expired…typically 6 mo to 2 years…was staggering. over half of the canned goods were not fit to consume. Average age of the donors seemed to be under 35. Over 60 seniors opted to donate cash, toilet paper or basic food items they had recently purchased. Home Economics classes and family stories about the great depression and world wars may have led to more informed understanding of food safety dates

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