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Dating Horror Stories: Sell-By Labels Eyed in Food Waste

Report blames best-by dates for much of country’s food waste
Photograph courtesy of FMI

The U.S. wastes up to 40% of the food it produces every year, and one of the major reasons for food waste is sell-by date labels, PBS NewsHour Weekend recently reported.

“There’s an enormous opportunity to reform date labels to be consistent with public health information and science, and in doing so, prevent a ton of food from going to waste,” Elizabeth Balkan, director of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told PBS NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson.

Balkan also shared some sobering statistics on the environmental impact of food waste:

  • The country’s food loss translates to an economic loss of $218 billion per year.
  • If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, behind China and the U.S.
  • The greenhouse gasses associated with food waste are about the equivalent of 37 million passenger vehicles on the road.
  • Food waste prevention is No. 3 of the top 100 most impactful things that we can do to address climate change.

While Balkan said restaurants and cafeterias are responsible for more than 80% of food waste in the U.S., she said “a lot of the source reason for food waste is connected to things like date labels. ... So what you see when you look at a date label that says ‘Best If Used By’ has nothing to do with food safety, but it’s [a] manufacturer suggestion about when this food item is at its peak freshness, which is inherently a subjective thing.”

In recent years, the food industry has taken steps to address consumer date-label confusion with the aim of reducing food waste. In 2017,  the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) led an initiative that resulted in the Product Code Dating policy.

“In the spirit of promoting transparent communication and bolstering consumer confidence, retailers and food manufacturers took steps in 2017 to enhance the consumer shopping experience and adopt cleaner, clearer product date labels,” said David Fikes, VP of communications and consumer/community affairs for FMI, in an interview with WGB.

“The hodgepodge of phrases has too often left consumers scratching their heads on what to do, with many discarding perfectly safe products because of a misunderstanding of what the dates and labels mean, which contributes to more food waste in landfills,” said Fikes.

FMI's voluntary initiative with GMA seeks to synthesize the myriad date labels on consumer products packaging down to just two standard phrases:

  1. “Best If Used By,” which describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
  2. “Use By,” which applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or potentially have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed or, if appropriate, frozen.

Nearly a decade ago, FMI worked in concert with the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service and Cornell University on a FoodKeeper tool, an app designed to help shoppers maximize the freshness and quality of grocery items.

Have the industry’s date-label standardization efforts moved the needle on consumer confusion and waste?

“We have been successful in getting industry adoption of this uniform language, and we recently reached a key milestone: the nomenclature’s endorsement by both the FDA and USDA,” said Fikes. “We will continue to press for industry adoption of this language, but some of our member companies have been faster than others because they want to change their labels at the same time [that] they accommodate Nutrition Facts or BE labeling requirements.

“We also need to be realistic about the impact these date labels will have on consumer behavior and when,” he added. “Behavior change is a long game, and food retailers will certainly play a role in consumer education.”

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