food date labels

Food date labels should, within about three years, become easier to figure out. The Consumer Goods Forum, a Paris-based consortium of 400 large consumer-goods companies in 70 countries, has agreed to simplify food labels by 2020. / Courtesy of Food Marketing Institute

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30 percent of America’s food supply is wasted, and much of that is due to confusion among consumers about the meaning of food date labels.

That waste results in the loss of up to $29 billion in the United States alone, according to the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). The Paris-based organization, consisting of 400 of the largest consumer-goods companies in 70 countries, on Sept. 20 approved new guidelines that will “standardise food date labels worldwide by 2020,” its website says (

Instead of the variety of food labels used now, the “Call to Action” that the Consumer Goods Forum issued says “retailers and food producers should take three important steps to simplify date labels and reduce food waste by 2020:
1. Only one label at a time;
2. 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 regional context;
3. Consumer education to better understand what date labels mean.
The announcement expands national efforts to streamline date labels in the United States, United Kingdom and Japan to the rest of the world.”

Under U.S. 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 (, 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.”

Let’s hope the new Call to Action guidelines, when adopted, will eliminate confusion as well as food waste.

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