Federal regulations regarding date code labels on food packaging are limited and state regulations vary widely. Generally speaking, manufacturers have a broad level of discretion for deciding when to include date labels on food packaging and what label terms to use. Although date code meanings vary by state and are not legally defined, the following date code terms are common and can loosely be defined as follows:
“Pack” or “Production” Date-this is the date on which the food product was manufactured or placed in final packaging.
“Sell by” date-this is a date determined by the manufacturer which provides information to the retailer for stock control while leaving a reasonable amount of shelf life for the consumer after purchase.
“Best if Used by” date-an estimate by the manufacturer of the date after which the food product will no longer be at its highest quality.
“Use by” date-the date determined by the manufacturer indicating the last date recommended for use of the food product while at peak quality.
“Freeze by” date-a date determined by the manufacturer intended to be a reminder the quality of the food product can be maintained much longer by freezing the product.
“Enjoy by” date-a date not clearly defined, but used by some manufacturers to recommend the time frame for the consumer to obtain the most enjoyment from the food product.
Federal law does not currently address date labeling with any specificity or consistency. US Government agencies having authority over food labeling are the FDA, Department of Agriculture and the USDA. The jurisdiction of these Federal government agencies is limited to regulating “misleading” labels on food products and to ensure that food products within their jurisdiction are not mislabeled. These agencies offer only voluntary guidance regarding date coding on food products. For example, the FDA Food Code is a reference document for state and local governments only and the FDA does not require food manufacturers to place “expired by”, “use by”, or “best before” dates on food products.
Because Federal regulations regarding date coding on food products are limited, states have vast discretion to regulate date codes on food products. State regulations vary widely state by state. State regulations often fall under many different government departments. Forty-one states require date coding on some food items and nine states do not require any date labels on food products.
Inconsistent regulations of date codes at the federal, state and local government levels means that manufacturers and industry associations often decide the form and content of date labels. Some food trade organizations have created their own voluntary guidance such as the Food Marketing Institute. In 2004, Walmart started to require its suppliers to place a “best if used by” date on all food products.
Manufacturers Decide Date Codes on Food Packaging
The bottom line is that food manufacturers have a broad level of discretion in deciding when to include date codes on their products and what date codes to use. The key motivating force behind a food manufacturer’s decision is the protection of the consumer’s experience of the product in order to safeguard the product’s reputation.