image of best by labels on food packaging
A new voluntary initiative by food manufacturers will encourage only the use of "best if used by" and "use by" labels to clear up any confusion. Currently, many products do have "sell by" dates which don't give consumers information on when it is no longer safe to eat.

Companies worldwide commit to simplifying food date labels

The Consumer Goods Forum and Champions 12.3 issue landmark call to use two simple date labels by 2020.

When you see "Sell by,” “Use by,” “Display until” or “Best before” on food labels, what do they all mean? Consumers around the world navigate a range of date labels on food products, and the resulting confusion costs families up to $29 billion annually in the U.S. alone. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) – a network of 400 of the biggest consumer goods companies across 70 countries – and Champions 12.3 have issued a call to action to standardize food date labels worldwide by 2020.

The CGF board of directors unanimously adopted the call to action to simplify date labels to companies like Tesco, Kellogg, Walmart, Campbell Soup, Bimbo, Pick n Pay, Nestlé, Carrefour and Unilever. The call to action says retailers and food producers should take three important steps to simplify date labels and reduce food waste by 2020: 

  1. Use only one label at a time.
  2. Have a choice of two labels: one expiration date for perishable items (e.g., “Use by”) and one food quality indicator for non-perishable items (e.g., “Best if used by”). The exact wording will be tailored to the regional context.
  3. Provide consumer education to help consumers better understand what date labels mean.

The announcement expands national efforts to streamline date labels in the U.S., the U.K. and Japan to the rest of the world.

In addition to the product labels, the call to action recommends that companies partner with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to educate consumers about how to interpret date labels. Education efforts could include in-store displays, online materials and public service announcements. Many consumers don’t know, for example, that many products are still safe to eat past the “Best if used by” date.

Dave Lewis, group chief executive of Tesco and chair of Champions 12.3, said, “Four years ago, Tesco was one of the first retailers to roll out single date coding across our fresh food and meat produce. All the evidence from WRAP and our own Tesco research has shown that streamlining date codes helps customers waste less food, and it also reduces waste in our own operations. That’s why it’s so important we extend this practice to more companies in every country. Streamlining date labels worldwide by 2020 could be game-changing in the fight against global food waste.”

“Kellogg Co. is working to reduce food loss and waste along the production and supply chains, and we want to encourage consumers to be part of the solution, too. As a global food company, we work to reduce hunger, improve nutrition and protect the planet,” said Maria Fernanda Mejia, senior vice president of The Kellogg Co. and president of Kellogg Latin America. “Simplifying food date labels is an important step forward in preventing food waste and will help end the confusion related to ‘sell by’ dates. Kellogg is an enthusiastic supporter of improved and harmonized food labeling standards to help educate and empower consumers to prevent food waste, save their families money and conserve resources to protect our planet”. 

“Walmart has worked with its suppliers to support the use of standardized date labels that provide consistent and transparent information to better reflect product’s shelf life,” said Katherine Neebe, director for sustainability at Walmart. “I commend CGF for leveraging their influence to support customer-friendly labeling practices.”

An estimated 1.3 billion metric tons of food is lost or wasted worldwide each year. The average U.S. household with children spends $1,500 a year on food that’s thrown away. Standardizing food date labels is a simple and effective way to reduce the amount of edible food thrown out by households, saving them money and reducing their environmental footprint. Food loss and waste is a major contributor to climate change, emitting 8% of annual greenhouse gases.

"Now, more than ever, is the time for business to play a leading role in tackling food waste. This is an issue that can only truly be tackled by collaboration across the value chain. Through our global membership, the CGF is committed to playing a leadership role. We believe simplified and consistent date labeling will help us get one step closer to meeting our resolution to halve food waste by 2025 while also helping reduce confusion for consumers," CGF managing director Peter Freedman said.

The announcement was made Wednesday at a Champions 12.3 event at The Rockefeller Foundation during Climate Week and the 72nd U.N. General Assembly. This week marks year 2 since the launch of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the event, Champions 12.3 also launched SDG Target 12.3 on "Food Loss & Waste: 2017 Progress Report," which takes stock of global progress to date toward halving food waste and reducing food loss by 2030.

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