A new food-industry labeling initiative might reduce consumer confusion -- and food waste _ food labeling

A new food-industry labeling initiative might reduce consumer confusion — and food waste. A “Use-By” date, such as the one at the bottom of this package, is not safety-related except when shown on infant formula. / Courtesy of Food Marketing Institute

The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), in a joint industry-wide effort with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has launched an initiative that “will help reduce consumer confusion over dates on the product label and potentially help consumers avoid unnecessary food waste,” according to the FMI website, fmi.org. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 percent of America’s food supply is wasted.)

Recently, as part of their initiative, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association issued new, voluntary guidelines for wording on expiration-date food labeling (italics added):

“’Best If Used By’ or ‘Best If Used or Freeze By’ quality phrasing will indicate to consumers that after the specified date, the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume. For example, the quality of the product taste or texture may have diminished slightly, or it may not have the full vitamin content indicated on the package.”

"Best if used by" labels are quality-related _ food labeling

“Best If Used By” labels are quality-related, so the food is probably safe to consume even after the date shown. / Courtesy of Grocery Manufacturers Association

“’Use By’ or ‘Use or Freeze By’ safety phrasing will inform customers that these products should be consumed on or before the date listed … The product should not be consumed after the date on the package due to the product’s perishable nature, and the product should be disposed of. This date label is for perishable products with potential safety implications or material degradation of critical performance, such as nutrition.”

Companies within the food industry will adopt these new, voluntary standards on food labeling over time — to allow them to achieve consistency across their product categories and to minimize food waste.

By law, only infant formula requires an expiration date

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is charged with developing regulations for food labeling. But according to its website, fsis.usda.gov, the only food product that the federal government requires to show an expiration date is infant formula.

“Federal regulations require a ‘Use-By’ date on the product label of infant formula under inspection of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Consumption by this date ensures the formula contains not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label. … Do not buy or use baby formula after its ‘Use-By’ date.”

Confusion over food labeling comes from lack of regulation

Why all the confusion over food labeling? According to the FSIS, “There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates.” Some estimates range as high as 10 phrases.

The FSIS site explains the three most commonly used phrases:

“A ‘Best If Used By/Before’ indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
“A ‘Sell-By’ date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
“A ‘Use-By’ date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except when used on infant formula.”

The new guidelines published by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association provide simpler, standardized labels. They also narrow the choices to two: “Best If Used By” or “Best If Used or Freeze By” (quality); and “Use By” or “Use or Freeze By” (safety).

Food waste a big problem in U.S.

Many consumers, confused about a food’s expiration label, might throw away a product that is not at its peak but still perfectly safe to consume. Spices and dry foods (e.g., pasta, rice) are examples. Food that spoils easily — meats and dairy products, for instance — could create a health risk. So the expiration date is far more important.

How big a problem is food waste in America, and what is at least one major cause? The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates “30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. One source of food waste arises from consumers or retailers throwing away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.”

Florida Food & Farm, once again, urges consumers to know your food suppliers and to practice caveat emptor (buyer beware).