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Opinion: It’s time to finally clear up food date label confusion for consumers

02/26/24. By Frank Yianna. Originally published in Agri-Pulse.

Roughly nine years ago, while serving as Vice President for Food Safety at the world’s largest food retailer, I surveyed how many different date labels were used by food producers to convey that food was nearing its expiration date. Much to my surprise, we counted 47 different and unnecessarily complicated labels. They ranged from “freshest-by,” “enjoy-by,” to “sell-by” and many more.

This diversity in how to convey the same message resulted in confusion and food waste. We swiftly acted to fix that among our private-label food brands. Almost 10 years later, what was true then is still true today across much of the food industry. Confusion about the meaning of so-called “expiration dates” because of the inordinate number of different ways it’s conveyed remains one of the primary drivers of food waste.

The Food Date Labeling Act (S.1484 | H.R.3159), which would standardize and simplify date labels across the United States, has been on the Congressional docket for the last five years. The research is clear. We have at our fingertips a proven, simple, and cost-effective solution: standardize the date label phrases used on food. It’s time to stop talking about confusing date labels and time to fix the problem.

It has been estimated that confusion over date labeling accounts for approximately 20 percent of consumer food waste. That’s equivalent to 1.3 billion meals or a quarter of all the meals Feeding America food banks distributed in 2022. But it’s not the consumers’ fault. Consumer confusion is the result of a confusing system. With over 50 non-standardized variations of phrases on labels today, it’s no wonder date labels are hard to understand.

Sometimes, manufacturers use a date to convey a food product’s safety, but more often, the date label is used to indicate the manufacturer’s estimate of the product’s peak quality. The indiscriminate use of terms like “fresh until” or “use before” leads consumers to throw away good food with the mantra “better safe than sorry,” even though the date is meant to convey maximum quality, not food safety. Unfortunately, that means people are wasting their money by tossing food despite it being safe to consume.

Solving the problem is straightforward: standardize date labels and educate consumers on what the label means. Consumer surveys have shown we only need two consumer-facing phrases: “Best If Used By” for quality and “Use By” for safety. Educating consumers about the differences between these two standard phrases will limit confusion, save consumers money, and reduce food waste.

Standardizing date labels is also safe. During my time as Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), we found that part of the reason people toss safe-to-eat food when it is past the date on the package is because they are scared there is a food safety issue. Empowering consumers with food label education will increase their confidence in decision-making around when the date is on a package for safety or when it just conveys optimal quality.

Standardizing date labels is supported by many food manufacturers. As Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart, I spearheaded the transition to require all private brand foods selling in our stores to use the standardized “Best If Used By” phrase for quality date labels. Our customers responded well to the change and told us this phrase best conveyed to them the date only conveyed quality. The change was an opportunity to simplify our customers’ lives and empower them to make smart purchasing decisions. Manufacturers would also benefit from a national standard for date labels rather than the piecemeal industry and, sometimes, the state-by-state approach we have now.

Lastly, standardizing date labels is feasible. At Walmart, we achieved near-perfect compliance with the standardized date label requirement on private brand food within a year and a half. Manufacturers have the technology to switch the verbiage on their food products. They also already have methods, such as conducting shelf-life evaluations for quality or microbial challenge testing for safety, by which they determine what date to put on their products.

Legislative solutions like the Food Date Labeling Act don’t tell manufacturers what date to use, nor require that they change their practices in how the dates are determined. They simply clear up consumer confusion by streamlining the intention of the date through common terminology across food products.

The need for action to reduce food waste has never been clearer. The research is established, and the functionality of a standardized date-label solution is proven.

People already assume that the federal government regulates date labels. It is time to finally clear up food date label confusion. Remember, food is too important to waste.

Frank Yiannas is the former Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy & Response at the FDA and the previous Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart.

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