FDA Supports Food Product Date Labeling Initiative

Americans are throwing out approximately 133 billion pounds of food worth $161 billion each year, which means 30% of food is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) has been working with the food manufacturing community to reduce food waste, looking for alternatives to reduce consumer confusion regarding food product date labels.

In recent days, the FMI received a letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that supports the industry efforts to simplify the information that appears on the food product labels.

“On behalf of FMI’s retail, wholesale and manufacturer members, we sincerely appreciate FDA’s recognition of the industry’s dedication to seeking solutions and mitigating consumer confusion in the marketplace regarding how best to navigate the myriad product code date labels on grocery shelves across the country. 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,” said FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin.

Manufacturers of packaged foods voluntarily use a wide variety of introductory phrases on food product date labels, such as “Best If Used By,” “Use By,” and “Sell By,” to describe quality dates to indicate when a food may be at its best quality.

A survey of U.S. consumers conducted on knowledge and use of open dates (i.e. calendar dates) used on product date labels for common packaged foods, less than half were able to distinguish between the meanings of three different introductory phrases that often appear before the calendar date on the product label: “Sell By”, “Use By”, and “Best If Used By”, according to the FDA.

The agency has found that food waste by consumers may often result from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding what the introductory phrases on product date labels mean, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods.

It has been estimated that confusion over date labeling accounts for approximately 20% of consumer food waste.

In 2017, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) brought together 25 consumer packaged goods and grocery retail companies to “simplify and streamline” food product date labels to reduce consumer confusion.

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In January 2017 the group recommended the use of two introductory phrases for product date labels: “Best If Used By” and “Use By.” The group recommends “Best If Used By” be used to “indicate to the consumer that, after a specified date, the food product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to be used or consumed.”

The group recommends that “Use By” “applies to perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date.

In a December 2018 consumer survey on the impact of the streamlined labels, GMA found that 88 percent of those surveyed said the streamlined food product date labels were clear to them and 85 percent said the streamlined product date labels were helpful.

“As approximately 80% of the foods in the US are regulated by the FDA, we would like to inform our regulated food industries that FDA strongly supports industry’s voluntary industry-wide efforts to use the “Best if Used By” introductory phrase when choosing to include a quality-based date label to indicate when a food product will be at its best flavor and quality,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Responses, in a letter to the FMI.

The FMI’s CEO responded that they appreciate the FDA’s endorsement of the “Best If Used By” date, a moniker of quality. “We look forward to continued discussions with both FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the small universe of food products that require a demarcation for food storage and safety.”