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Supermarkets Move to Simplify Date Labels to Cut Food Waste

Originally written by Katie Deighton and published by The Wall Street Journal on August 12, 2022.

Grocery stores are reducing their use of labels such as “best by” and “sell by,” which many customers don’t understand, in an effort meant to reduce food waste.

In the U.K., several supermarket companies this year abandoned various date labels on certain foods.

Wm. Morrison Supermarkets PLC, based in Bradford, England, in January removed “use by” dates from 90% of its own-brand milk, though the packages still carry a “best before” date. “Use by” is employed by many organizations to indicate the last date a product is safe to consume, while “best before” is an indicator of quality. 

Milk is still safe to consume even after a “best before” date, the retailer said, encouraging customers to smell the milk they have at home to see if it passes the sniff test. According to the company, milk is the third most wasted food in the U.K., after potatoes and bread.

London-based Marks & Spencer Group PLC’s grocery business last month said it would scrap date labels across 300 of its fruit and vegetable lines, expanding the practice from its loose produce to items that come in packets, such as grapes. Packaged produce sold without date labels will instead feature a code that store workers will use to assess when to take products off the shelf, the company said. 

Waitrose, the British supermarket owned by John Lewis Partnership PLC, last week said it would remove “best before” dates from nearly 500 fresh produce items starting in September. Waitrose hopes that customers will use their own judgment when assessing freshness, rather than throwing away good-quality produce purely because it’s past its so-called best, said Ben Thomas, senior manager for sustainability and ethics, environment and food waste at John Lewis Partnership.

“This is not being introduced to benefit our bottom line,” Mr. Thomas said in an email. “This is solely driven by our commitment to doing the right thing.”

The U.K. requires food businesses to use the terms “best before” or “use by” on most pre-packed food products. The U.S., however, has no federal law on date labels for food other than baby formula, making for a hodgepodge of state laws and guidance. But federal agencies, trade groups and politicians are pushing for companies to stop using a range of labels with unclear meanings—from “enjoy by” to “expires on”—and instead come up with common standards, said Emily Broad Leib, founding director at Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Some analysts said getting rid of date labels could backfire.

Date labeling helps customers quickly scan for the freshest items on the shelf, and lets them easily keep track of the oldest and newest items in their fridges, said Andrew Busby, founder of U.K.-based retail-analyst firm Retail Reflections. Consumers left without information about an item’s freshness via the best-before label may be pushed to shop elsewhere, while the absence of use-by dates may lead to customers throwing out perfectly good food at home as they err on the side of caution, he said.

“Consumers now more than ever need as much help and information as they can get from supermarkets, and this seems to be withdrawing something from them,” Mr. Busby said.

But other retail executives said simplifying date labeling would clear up confusion among people who unnecessarily toss out food because they assume anything past a printed date is unsafe to eat.

Research published in 2016 by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found 84% of consumers always or occasionally throw away food when it reaches a date printed on the label. Only 67% knew that “best by” dates are indicators of a food’s quality and freshness, while 15% thought they are a food safety indicator and 12% thought they are a label for store staff.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 in a letter urged the food industry to adopt a single, standardized “best if used by” label on items that are safe to consume even when their taste or smell may have deteriorated.

The Consumer Goods Forum, a global trade group, in 2017 similarly recommended that retailers and food producers go with a quality date for nonperishable items, such as “best if used by,” or an expiration date for perishable items, such as “use by.” The organization doesn’t track member companies’ progress on such calls to action, said Ignacio Gavilan, its sustainability director. 

Walmart Inc., a member of the group, said about 91% of its private-label food sales come from items carrying “best if used by” or “use by” labels, up from 84% in 2020 and 70% in 2016. 

U.S. lawmakers have long sought to pass legislation to simplify and standardize date labeling. The latest, the bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act introduced last year by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine), would mandate that manufacturers label foods with either a quality-assuring “best if used by” or a safety-oriented “use by” date.

“There’s a worry about Congress getting involved in labeling, and it being kind of a slippery slope leading to requirements on other things as well,” Harvard’s Ms. Broad Leib said. But the amount of companies paring back or clarifying their date labels of their own accord suggests a business case for doing so, she said.

Overzealous date labeling can lead to companies selling less, as consumers avoid buying products that are close to an often-arbitrary best-before date, Ms. Broad Leib said, adding, “And then the retailers are throwing it away.”

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