Food Industry Takes Giant Step to Solve the Dating Game

Today is a big day for anyone who throws out food that’s past its date or has wondered what the heck those dates mean. The two leading food industry associations, Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), jointly released voluntary guidance to help standardize date labels and reduce confusion about what those labels mean. This is an enormously helpful step in addressing the vast amount of food going to waste in stores and homes across the country.

There are no federal rules that set standard ways to date food labels, with the exception of infant formula. State and local rules vary and in most instances, industry practice has been to print dates based on the manufacturers’ suggestions for when food is likely to be at its freshest or peak quality. That’s right—quality. Yet over 80 percent of Americans throw food out at least occasionally believing that those dates are related to the food’s safety.

You know the dates I’m talking about—sell by, use by, best before, enjoy by, delicious by, etc. There are myriad of them—when Walmart made a similar change, they went from 47 different phrases down to one! The challenge is not just that many phrases are used, but that there are no actual definitions associated with any of the phrases. And while the vast majority of dates are meant to indicate freshness, there are a handful of products where the dates actually are indicating some level of increased risk after that date. The problem is, you have no way of knowing which are which. And the same phrase could be used to indicate freshness by one manufacturer and increased risk by another.

The FMI/GMA guidance closely follows the recommendations from NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s landmark 2013 report, The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash, which brought the issue into the spotlight. Essentially, it does a few key things:

  • Establishes two standard phrases to be used with date labels, each with an associated definition: “Best if used by” to indicate peak quality and “Use by” when the date does indicate some level of increased risk after that timeframe. This means that for the first time, we’ll actually be able to concretely say what the dates are actually meant to convey.
  • Phases out the use of “sell by” dates that are visible to consumers. These dates are really meant to speak to the retailer, not directly to the consumer, but are often incorrectly interpreted as expiration dates by consumers. Converting to coded information to help with shelf rotation will help eliminate this confusion.
  • Allows for “freeze by” to be added if that information can help clarify how to handle the product. This phrasing, such as “use or freeze by” is common with meat products, for instance.
  • Establishes a timeline of summer 2018 for these changes to appear on products, aligning with the timeline for changes to the nutrition panel information.

This move shows great leadership and commitment to helping consumers get the most out of their food. It is, however, a first step. To really nail this problem down, a few key things must follow:

  • The industry must gain a vast majority of participation. Without that, we won’t be able to have confidence the phrases actually mean what their guidance suggests they do.
  • State laws must change. Given the matrix of varied state laws on this topic, some products in some states will not be able to comply. Montana, for instance, requires the phrase “sell by” to be placed on milk, and would have to alter this law in order for this guidance to be followed there.
  • Information must be disseminated. Until now, it’s been difficult to tell consumers what dates mean since they don’t actually have definitions. If this guidance is followed by the industry, the next step is to now help consumers understand what these dates now mean so that they can feel assured consuming “best if used by” products after their date, and are aware to be more careful with “use by” products. This will require a significant education push.

Neither gaining the industry’s participation nor changing state laws is easy. A more streamlined way to achieve the same result would be to pass federal legislation along the lines of the industry’s guidance. In 2016, bills of this nature were introduced in both the House and Senate. A federal law of this kind would have the further benefit of removing state restrictions to selling or donating products after the quality date—restrictions that now exist in 20 states. This could help reduce product that is currently expiring before reaching consumers as well as increase food donations.

Nevertheless, the guidance released today by FMI and GMA shows strong leadership towards reducing confusion and reducing wasted food, and I, for one, am very appreciative!

About the Authors

Dana Gunders

Senior Scientist, Food & Agriculture program

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