Dates On Food Labels May Actually Start To Make Some Sense

By | March 1, 2016

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This article is part of HuffPost’s Reclaim campaign, an ongoing project spotlighting the world’s waste crisis and how we can begin to solve it.

Food labels were long thought to protect consumers from eating spoiled products. Instead, the unregulated system has mostly just caused confusion and led tons of perfectly edible food to end up in landfills.

But that’s likely to change thanks to new guidance proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The department has recommended that manufacturers use one easy-to-interpret label: Best if used by.

The announcement comes after advocates have pushed for a more streamlined system ― one that effectively informs customers about the quality of the food sold at supermarkets. 

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The “use by” date on food doesn’t indicate any measure of its safety. That is just the date recommended for use while the product is at peak quality.

Currently, products bear a number of vague terms. The “sell by” date, for example, only informs the retailer. It allows storeowners to maintain stock control and leaves a “reasonable” amount of time for a customer to consume a product after it’s purchased, according to the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit conservation group. 

The “use by” date also poses some confusion. That is the date recommended for use while the product is at peak quality, according to the USDA.

Food waste experts have taken issue with the fact there is little regulation around these labels.

“The U.S. food dating system is not a system at all. It’s a mess,” Dana Gunders, senior scientist at NRDC, wrote in a blog post in 2013. “While to most people it seems that there is a rationale, objective system behind the dates we see on our food, it’s really more like the Wild West.”

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The average American family wastes about $1,500 in edible food a year.

Developing a more standardized system could keep 398,000 tons of food from being wasted every year, according to a report released this year by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and other groups. The average family throws out about $1,500 in perfectly edible food a year, CBS News reported.

To eliminate some doubt around dates, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has proposed that manufacturers use just one label ― the “best if used by” indicator. That informs consumers when a product will reach its best flavor or quality. However, it’s not a safety indicator.

“Research shows that this phrase is easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality, rather than safety,” FSIS said in a press release.

But if the product doesn’t show signs of spoiling, it can still be sold, purchased, donated and consumed after that date.

This marks another step taken by the USDA to reduce food waste. The organization has also made it easier for companies to donate products that have minor labeling errors, such as an incorrect net weight. 

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In the U.S., 41 states and the District of Columbia require date labels on at least some food items. Nine states don’t require them on any foods.

Still, experts note there’s considerable room for improvement, and oversight, when it comes to regulating food labels.

In the U.S., 41 states and the District of Columbia require date labels on at least some food items. Nine states don’t require them on any foods. And there’s no uniform labeling system, further complicating the issue. 

Baltimore, for example, prohibits selling any perishable food past its expiration date. But Maryland doesn’t. The only exception across the board is infant formula, which must adhere to labeling requirements outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association hasn’t indicated whether it will adopt the USDA’s new recommendations.

It told CBS News that “the food and consumer products industry is committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions regarding the safety and quality of the products they purchase and consume.”

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