Solving food date label confusion is a tricky situation
About 60% of Americans have discussed the meanings of date labels on foods in their household, according to a poll conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association,.
When determining whether or not to throw away a food product, 40% of those surveyed said they have had disagreements in their households.
Wanting to prevent food waste is a nonpartisan issue. Respondents who identified themselves as Democrats and Republicans stated that they are the ones in the household who are interested in keeping food longer (56% and 59%, respectively).
It is no surprise that Americans are confused about date labels on their food, considering the litany of different terms that are used. Across all ages and political leanings, the survey by GMA found that the current range of phrases used, including “best by," "use by," "sell by" and "use or freeze by" confuses all.
This confusion is a large contributor to food waste because many Americans discard food too early, totaling $162 billion worth of food wasted each year. Studies show that 44% of food waste in landfills is from consumers, but some statistics say that a clearer date labeling on food would decrease this number by 8%.
To combat this confusion and reduce food waste, GMA and the Food Marketing Institute partnered in February to standardize the language of date labels for food. They have streamlined the labeling to just two categories: “BEST If Used By” referring to product quality, meaning it may not taste or perform as expected but is still safe to consume, and “USE By” referring to products that are highly perishable or have a food safety concern after a certain amount of time.
While it does simplify the process, the problem with the initiative is that it is voluntary. In their favor, more than 250 leading food, beverage and consumer product companies are members of GMA, and 40,000 retail food stores are members of FMI.
However, without a Food and Drug Administration ruling on the matter, it will be difficult to ensure that retailers and manufacturers nationwide will follow these new guidelines. It also remains to be seen whether the pressure from these industry leaders will convince the FDA to adopt standard packaging language. And even if the FDA is convinced, the Trump administration may be unlikely to adopt a brand new regulation for businesses.
Although two date labels are certainly less confusing than 10, manufacturers and retailers will have to spell out the meaning of each label to fully clear up confusion among consumers. A simple change will not be enough if consumers are still unclear about the definitive meaning of each new label.