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.

Industry rolls out new food date labeling standards

Voluntary initiative streamlines myriad date labels on consumer product packaging to just “BEST If Used By” and “USE By” statements.

In a new industry-wide effort to reduce consumer confusion about product date labels, grocery manufacturers and retailers have joined together to adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of products.

Currently, more than 10 different date labels on packages – such as Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By or Best By – can result in confused consumers discarding a safe or usable product simply because it's past the date on the package.

The new voluntary initiative streamlines the myriad date labels on consumer products packaging down to just two standard phrases. “BEST If Used By describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is still safe to use or consume after the given date. “USE By” applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.

The new initiative for common phrasing is led by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), the two major trade associations for retailers and consumer product manufacturing.

Retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to immediately begin phasing in the common wording, with widespread adoption urged by the summer of 2018. Broad industry adoption of this new voluntary standard will occur over time so companies have flexibility to make the changes in a way that ensures consistency across their product categories.

“Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste,” Pamela G. Bailey, GMA president and chief executive officer, said.

“The shopper remains the most critical audience in our industry, and as the associations representing major food brands and retailers, we want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible,” FMI president and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin said. “While we all need nourishment, both retailers and manufacturers also want consumers to have the best experience possible in their stores and consuming their products.”

“The customer comes first in our business, and this voluntary industry initiative provides shoppers with clear, easily understood date label information so our customers can be confident in the product’s quality and safety,” added Joe Colalillo, president of ShopRite of Hunterdon County Inc. and chairman and CEO of Wakefern Food Corp. “Food retailers and manufacturers are working towards the common goal of bringing consistency and greater clarity in product date label messaging. We want to ensure our customers have meaningful information that helps them make the best decisions for their families both in the store when they shop and when they enjoy foods at home."

“Eliminating confusion for consumers by using common product date wording is a win-win because it means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error,” said Jack Jeffers, vice president of quality at Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen – and out of landfills.”

Product date labeling changes may result in reduced consumer food waste, but clearing up this confusion is just one of several ways to combat the issue moving forward. About 44% of food waste sent to landfills comes from consumers; statistics show that addressing consumer confusion surrounding product date labeling could reduce total national food waste by 8%.

"Research shows that the multitude of date labels that appear on foods today are a source of confusion for many consumers," said Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety and health for Walmart. "As advocates for the customer, we're delighted with this industry-wide, collaborative initiative that will provide consistency, simplify consumers' lives and reduce food waste in homes across America."

“Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost-effective ways that we can reduce the 40% of food that goes to waste each year in the United States,” Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law & Policy Clinic (FLPC), said. “Having worked for several years on this issue, I am thrilled to see GMA and FMI incorporate FLPC’s recommendations and take this critical step towards making date labels clearer so that consumers can make better decisions and reduce needless waste of food and money."

Legislative need?

House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas) praised the new initiative. In the last session of Congress, the committee examined the issue of food waste through a full committee hearing, roundtable discussion, "food waste fair" and extensive meetings with both consumer and industry stakeholders.

"Virtually every discussion included concerns regarding waste generated as a result of consumer confusion about the various date labels on foods and what they mean. I am pleased to see the grocery manufacturing and retail industries tackling this issue head on. Not every issue warrants a legislative fix, and I think this industry-led, voluntary approach to standardizing date labels is a prime example,” Conaway said.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said the voluntary label will clear up consumer confusion and reduce food waste.

“Standardizing date labels is the first step, and I hope that consumer education efforts on what these dates actually mean will continue,” Peterson said. “I understand that there are industry concerns regarding their ability to comply with this effort while also following state regulations. These concerns will need to be addressed. I look forward to continuing to work with producers, grocers, manufacturers and consumers to reduce food waste in the United States.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) applauded the new industry standards on food date labeling but believes a mandatory approach is still needed. She said she will soon be reintroducing legislation to set a national uniform system for date labeling.

“Per capita, food waste in the U.S. costs a family of four $1,500 every year. Much of that food is perfectly good to eat but gets thrown out anyway because of confusing, inconsistent and sometimes misleading food date labels,” Pingree said. “I appreciate the work of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. and the Food Marketing Institute to develop a standard that distinguishes between when food is no longer safe to eat versus when it might not be at its peak flavor. This is an important step as we seek to standardize date labels, but the only way to fully resolve inconsistent state date labeling laws across the country is to set a national uniform system for date labeling, which is why I will soon be reintroducing my legislation to do so.”

Last May, Pingree introduced the first legislation to standardize date labels along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.). The legislation does not mandate that manufacturers put date labels on food but provides standardized language if they decide to do so. Part of the legislation would also make sure states cannot restrict the donation of food that has passed its quality date -- something that can only be accomplished through a legislative fix, Pinagree said.

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