A new initiative may reduce consumer confusion over food expiration labels.

Don’t throw that out: Big changes to take place for product expiration dates

What do food expiration dates mean? Numerous studies have discovered "best used by" and "sell by" product dates cause significant confusion and food waste among American consumers. Two influential players in the food manufacturing community, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, intend to bring more clarity to the food expiration labeling industry.

What do expiration labels really mean?
Far too many Americans don't have a proper understanding of what food expiration dates really mean. As a result of this confusion, many consumers either throw away food too early, or hold on to spoiled products for too long. For example, an NSF International survey found that 51 percent of the U.S. population throws away food based on the "best used by" label, while 36 percent discards food depending on the "sell by" date. Here is a quick guideline as to what each of these labels actually means:

  • Expiration or use by dates: These refer to food safety.
  • Sell by dates: These are references for retailers to let them know how long to display an item for sale.
  • Best used by dates: This is a guide to how long a product will retain its quality and freshness.

This misunderstanding of these labels leads to food waste and high grocery bills. Additionally, 27 percent of consumers don't pay attention to expiration dates, which could lead to exposure to harmful food-borne pathogens. Another NSF International survey found that most consumers rely on unscientific or incorrect approaches to determine whether they should throw away their food products. According to the study, 47 percent use visual cues, like changes in color or texture, while 17 percent get rid of food based on smell.

"This initiative could reduce national food waste by 8 percent."

New industry initiative to reduce consumer confusion 
The FMI and GMA are spearheading this voluntary industry initiative to improve food expiration labeling effectiveness by limiting use to only two standard phrases. If food manufacturing adopt this approach, "best if used by" will only describe product quality, where food may not perform or taste as intended, yet is still safe for consumption. Meanwhile, "use by" will apply to food products where consumers must eat or drink them by the prescribed date due to health or safety concerns.

Since this announcement, food retailers and manufactures are urged to immediately begin changing the phrasing on their packages. The FMI and GMA expect widespread adoption to take place by the summer of 2018. While this is not a mandate for the food labeling industry, it will ensure consistency across product categories and hopefully improve consumer relationships. By certain estimates, this initiative could reduce national food waste by 8 percent.

"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," Emily Broad Leib, Director, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), told GMA. "Having worked for several years on this issue, I am thrilled to see GMA and FMI incorporate FLPC's recommendations and take this critical step towards making date labels clearer, so that consumers can make better decisions and reduce needless waste of food and money."

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