Help implement new food date terminology

New food expiration date terminology can save food from waste.

As a new food entrepreneur, how do you best convey the freshness of your product? This is a challenge for food manufacturers and consumers alike. As of today, there are more than ten different date labels used, including Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By, or Best By. This often results in confused consumers discarding a safe or usable product according to the date on the package.

There have been several attempts to establish labeling laws related to product freshness since the 1970s. Unfortunately, nothing has ever been adopted into law. Even though the FDA regulates food labels, date labeling remains entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. The only exception to this is the “use by” date labeling of infant formula, for safety reasons, according to an article by Technic Packaging Services.

In 2013, the Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a comprehensive report on food expiration dates and concluded that these were the cause of high, rising rates of waste in the U.S. The report, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, called on federal authorities to improve date labeling policies and practices to decrease consumer confusion.

The good news is, The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association are hoping to remove this confusion around “sell by” dates by launching a voluntary initiative streamlining date labels on consumer products packaging down to two phrases. The first, “best if used by”, will be used to describe product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume. “Use by” will apply to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time. Retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to immediately start phasing in the wording to achieve widespread adoption by the summer of 2018. Since this isn’t a law taking effect on a particular date, industry adoption of this new voluntary standard is expected to occur over time and companies will have flexibility about how they adopt the standard.

According to The Food Institute blog, Emily Broad Leib, Director, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, says, “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 U.S.”

Jack Jeffers, Vice President of Quality at Dean Foods, also noted, “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.”

The MSU Product Center, in partnership with Michigan State University Extension, provides business counseling for product development, packaging and marketing strategies that will help Michigan entrepreneurs commercialize high-value, consumer–responsive food, value-added agriculture, and natural resource products. For more information, visit the MSU Product Center website or call 517-432-8750.

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