US Food Industry Seeks to Reduce Date Label Confusion

In an industry-wide effort to lower the level of consumer confusion about food product date labels in the United States, manufacturers and retailers have joined together to adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of its contents.

Currently more than 10 different date labels on packages – such as Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By or Best By – can result in confused consumers discarding a safe or usable product after the date on the package.

The new voluntary initiative streamlines the myriad date labels on retail product 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 the few 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.

fmi logoThe new initiative for common phrasing is led by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the two major food trade associations representing the retail and consumer product manufacturing sectors.

Retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to immediately begin phasing in the common wording with widespread adoption urged by the summer of 2018. Broad industry adoption of this new voluntary standard will occur over time, so companies have flexibility to make the changes in a way that ensures consistency across their product categories.

“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 Leslie G. Sarasin, president and ceo of 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 G. Bailey, president and ceo of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

product code date labeling infographic.tmb large 350 “The customer comes first in our business, and this voluntary industry initiative provides shoppers with clear, easily understood date label information, so our customers can be confident in the product’s quality and safety,” said Joe Colalillo, president of ShopRite of Hunterdon County, Inc. and chairman and chief executive officer of Keasbey, New Jersey-headquartered Wakefern Food Corp.

“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,” said Jack Jeffers, Vice President of Quality at Dallas, Texas-headquartered Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen – and out of landfills.”

Product date labeling changes may result in reduced consumer food waste, but clearing up this confusion is just one of several ways to combat the issue in the future.  About 44% of food waste sent to landfills comes from consumers, and statistics show that addressing consumer confusion around product date labeling could reduce total national food waste by 8%. 

GMA logoThe food industry has stepped up and made considerable progress in reducing food waste. GMA and FMI joined with the National Restaurant Association in 2011 to create the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which is helping companies find ways to cut food waste. GMA member companies recycled 97% 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.

Walmart, FLPC Support Effort

The date labeling initiative has been praised by a range of companies and groups.

"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 Bentonville, Arkansas-headquartered 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."

“Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost effective ways that we can reduce the 40% 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).