An example of a confusing date label: The ‘Sell by’ date on egg cartons can, the USDA says, by up to 30 days after the eggs were packed. When properly stored, though, the eggs will still be edible — but not as tasty — for several weeks beyond the ‘sell by’ date. (Source: USDA)
The US public has been vocally concerned for years about the over-abundance of ways food packers advise when, in their opinion, a product ‘expires’. After much consideration – stretching over more than a decade – the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has made a recommendation. In a May 23 letter to the industry, the agency encouraged all consumer-facing companies to focus on one phrase: “Best If Used By”.
Confusion over the meaning of that and the likes of ‘Use By’ and ‘sell By’ to describe quality dates resulted in “less than half” of consumers surveyed in 2007 to determine or distinguish between those phrases, the letter noted. And that, in part, the agency declared, significantly contributed to the wasting of “approximately 133 billion pounds of food worth $161 billion each year.”
It is hoped by the FDA’s Economic Research Service that if the industry standardizes on the recommended phrase, a sizable share of that waste – 30% of food moving through the system – will end up where it’s intended to be: In stomachs rather than landfills.
Signed by Frank Yiannas, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response, the letter is said to reflect the positions of a number of industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. Those groups are expected to encourage their members to follow the FDA’s suggestion so that, “over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this ‘Best if Used By’ terminology,” Yiannis wrote. He declared that, “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”
Food Dive noted that the agency didn’t explain why it wasn’t taking a position on “use by” product date labels, which GMA and FMI support. That term applies to “perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date,” FDA’s letter said. It may be the agency doesn’t want to support a term that prompts consumers to discard food when it’s trying to reduce waste.
Industry response to the FDA’s letter has been positive so far. Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said in a statement the group’s members appreciate FDA’s acknowledgement of industry’s desire to reduce consumer confusion with this label.
“The agency’s endorsement signals a best practice in ways industry partners can truly deliver on a promise to provide guidance to our customers that is easier to understand,” she said.
A survey by GMA and FMI released in December found 85% of U.S. consumers thought simplified date labels would be helpful, so this latest move could push more companies to use the “Best if used by” phrase.
Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in a statement emailed to Food Dive that FDA’s support of the standardized phrase shows the CPG (consumer packaged goods) industry is working to help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions. GMA and the Food Marketing Institute came together with 25 companies in 2017 to find a way to reduce consumer confusion that led to unintended food waste, he said.
“Our solution was a streamlined approach to date labeling that has been recognized by USDA and now FDA as a smart approach and an important step in alleviating confusion and reducing food waste,” Freeman said in the statement.
While standardized use of the “best if used by” phrase on food products could begin to cut down on food waste, FDA supports additional consumer education by industry, government and non-government groups about what quality-based date labels mean and how to use them. Such ongoing efforts will likely be important to make sure “Best If Used By” continues to stand for something and that food waste declines as a result.
(Some produce packers further confuse the issue by use of “packed by” or “harvested on” dates. It can be argued that, to a great degree, those suggest consumers use common sense and their eyes to determine the freshness of an item.)