by Kirk T. Schroder, Ellwood Thompson's Food Advocate

Recent reports have indicated that a large amount of food waste in the United States stems from customer confusion about food expiration dates. Stamps like “use by,” “expires on,” and “best by” leave consumers guessing when their food actually goes bad and results in the premature tossing-out of perfectly good food. “Household food waste accounts for 40% of all food waste in the U.S., and we estimate that 20% of household food waste is due to confusion over date labels,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel.

As a solution, some manufacturers have adopted a standard to only use “best by” and “use by.” The first label is intended to inform consumers of the overall quality while the second label suggests when the quality of the food begins to wane. And while industry standards may clear up some of the confusion for consumers, there is no guarantee that every manufacturer will use the same exact label.

Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration recently sent a letter to food manufacturers indicating its strong support for a move toward standardized date labeling. The letter, while not binding on manufacturers, identifies that food waste is both a major concern of the FDA and, more broadly, American citizens. In addition, the FDA identified that about 20% of all food waste does indeed stem from confusion over date labeling, resulting in 133 billion pounds of discarded food worth $161 billion.

The main issue with food labeling up to now is that consumers are often quick to discard food when a label suggests the food has gone bad. In most cases however, food is often still safe for consumption for a number of days because existing labels are just supposed to convey the quality and freshness of the food, not whether it is safe to eat. Accordingly, the FDA is in favor of food manufacturers using the “Best if Used By” label for all appropriate foods. The FDA’s strong suggestion mirrors that of the USDA, which regulates mainly animal products like meat and eggs.

Consumer research supports the use of “Best if Used By” because it conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality by the calendar date shown. The phrase also indicates that the food is still safe for sale, purchase, donation, and consumption beyond the labeled date.

At a minimum, an industry shift towards the “Best if Used By” label could greatly reduce consumer confusion as to whether their food is safe to eat. Standardization will also reduce the variety of varying food labels. “We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this ‘Best if Used By’ terminology,” says Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response. “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”

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