Grocery Industry Clarifies Date Labels to Cut Food Waste

Shoppers need clarity in date labeling (Photo by Anthony Albright)


WASHINGTON, DC, February 25, 2017 (ENS) – When shoppers look at their food purchases today they could see any of these warning phrases alerting them when a food is no longer safe to eat: Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By or Best By … confused yet?

Currently, there are more than 10 different date label wordings used on food packages somewhere in the United States.

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Cream cheese expiration date wording “Best When Used by Date Stamped” (Photo by Chris Waits)

The grocery industry thinks shoppers are discarding foods that are actually safe to eat and wasting good food because they just don’t understand the warnings.

So, grocery manufacturers and retailers partnering are adopt standard wording on food packaging in a new industry-wide voluntary effort to cut food waste by reducing consumer confusion about product date labels.

The initiative streamlines the many date labels on food 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 safe to use or consume.

“USE By” applies to 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 two major trade associations, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute.

“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,” said Pamela Bailey, GMA president and chief executive.

Canned potatoes “Best Before” date label (Photo by Wil C. Fry)

Jack Jeffers, vice president of Quality at Dean Foods, which led the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s work on this issue, said, “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. It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen – and out of landfills.”

The grocery industry’s initiative is in line with new guidelines issued by the federal government.

Last December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued new guidance aimed at reducing food waste through encouraging food manufacturers and retailers to use a “Best if Used By” date label.

“In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy,” said Al Almanza, then USDA deputy under secretary for food safety, who is now administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, FSIS. “This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.”

Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by federal regulations.

Almanza said FSIS changed its guidance to recommend the use of “Best if Used By” because research shows that this phrase is easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality, rather than safety.

Retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to immediately begin phasing in the common wording. Widespread adoption is expected by the summer of 2018.

Phase in of the new voluntary standard will allow companies the flexibility to make these changes in a way that ensures consistency across product categories.

Shoppers need clarity in date labeling (Photo by Anthony Albright)

“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,” said Food Marketing Institute president and chief executive Leslie Sarasin.

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to roughly 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.

This amount of waste has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change, says the USDA.

First of all, wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills.

“The land, water, labor, energy and other inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food are pulled away from uses that may have been more beneficial to society – and generate impacts on the environment that may endanger the long-run health of the planet,” the USDA said in a statement.

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Wasted food headed for the landfill (Photo by Nick Saltmarsh)

Food waste, which is the single largest component going into municipal landfills, quickly generates the potent greenhouse gas methane, helping to make landfills the third largest source of methane in the United States.

“Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost effective ways that we can reduce the 40 percent of food that goes to waste each year in the United States,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, FLPC.

Leib said she is “thrilled” to see the grocery industry incorporate FLPC’s recommendations and take this “critical step” to make date labels clearer, so that “consumers can make better decisions and reduce needless waste of food and money.”

Joe Colalillo, president of ShopRite of Hunterdon County, Inc. in New Jersey, and chairman and CEO of Wakefern Food Corp., is a fan of the new wording because it is clear and easily understood, increasing consumer confidence.

“Food retailers and manufacturers are working towards the common goal of bringing consistency and greater clarity in product date label messaging,” Colalillo said. “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.”

The food industry has already made progress in reducing food waste.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute joined with the National Restaurant Association in 2011 to create the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which helps companies find ways to cut food waste.

GMA member companies recycled 97 percent of food waste from operations and donated 156 million pounds of food to food banks in 2015.

FMI member companies reported 1.5 billion pounds in diverted food waste, including 390 million pounds of food donated to food banks.

“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.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2017. All rights reserved.


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