No More Confusing Food Expiration Labels!

Consumers across America share frustration over food labels; or, more specifically, “expiration” labels. These are the markers that often include the terms “sell by” and “best if used by” among others.  These are not actually “expiration dates,” per se: but rather there are now nearly a dozen markers that indicate several different things—hence all the confusion.

For example, a food manufacturer will label something with a “best if used by” date to indicate to a consumer the peak of freshness or quality. Of course, that doesn’t mean the product will no longer be good past the labeled date, but not all food products are the same, so this label can be difficult to interpret.  Similarly, the label “sell by” typically indicates that a store should try to move that product as soon as possible so that consumers can acquire it within its peak freshness or quality range.  Again, though, this is not an expiration date, and it doesn’t exactly tell consumers which products we should buy.

Both the United States Department of Agriculture and a coalition of environmental groups have long urged the food industry to clear this up for two major reasons. First of all, consumers waste a lot of money throwing out [perfectly good] food that they believe is expired (when it probably isn’t); and secondly, this discarded food makes up a significant amount of landfill space, contributing to greenhouse emissions.

According to the senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, Meghan Stasz, “We waste about 40 percent of the food we produce,” Leib said. “The single most cost effective solution is standardizing and clarifying date labels.”

Well, it looks like the food industry is taking note of consumer frustration over this.  As such, the Food Marketing Industry and the GMA have announced a joint effort to simplify this to two labels. These will be a “best if used by” date to indicate peak quality/freshness and a “use by” date for foods that are highly perishable and could pose safety concerns if not consumed quickly.

“There’s always this habit of going to the back of the shelf and taking the milk with the date that’s the furthest out,” explains Emily Broad Leib, who is the director of Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. “I think this will really help consumers know when does that date matter and when does it not matter for safety reasons.”

Indeed, Stasz goes on to say, “We have strong support throughout the industry for this streamlined initiative. It’s an example of the food industry really stepping up and stepping forward to address a consumer challenge.”

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