Initiative Aims To Reduce Confusion On Product Date Labels

In a new industry-wide effort to reduce consumer confusion about product date labels, grocery manufacturers and retailers have joined together to adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of products.

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 consumer products packaging down to 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.

The new initiative for common phrasing is led by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

Retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to immediately begin phasing in the common wording, with widespread adoption urged by summer 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.

“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 GMA President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey.

“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 FMI President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin. “While we all need nourishment, both retailers and manufacturers also want consumers to have the best experience possible in their stores and consuming their products.”

Joe Colalillo, president of ShopRite of Hunterdon County and chairman and CEO of Wakefern Food Corp., said,  “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. Food retailers and manufacturers are working toward the common goal of bringing consistency and greater clarity in product date label messaging. We want to ensure our customers have meaningful information that helps them make the best decisions for their families, both in the store when they shop and when they enjoy foods at home.”

Added Jack Jeffers, VP of quality at Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue, “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. 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 moving forward. Forty-four percent 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 percent.

The food industry has made 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 percent 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.

Wednesday’s announcement was 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, VP of food safety and health for 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.”

Added Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), “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. 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 toward making date labels clearer, so that consumers can make better decisions and reduce needless waste of food and money.”

About The Author

A former newspaper editor and publisher who has handled digital duties for The Shelby Report since 2011. She once enjoyed leisurely perusing the grocery store aisles but, since having a baby in 2016, is now an enthusiastic click-and-collect shopper.

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