Expiration dates, sell-by dates, best if used by dates… Figuring out how long food is safe to eat is a confusing mess to the majority of Americans. But after 40 years of sniffing items in your fridge and Googling whether you can eat eggs that are a week past the date printed on the carton, the grocery industry is stepping in to clarify things. [1]

On 15 February 2017, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the two biggest trade groups for the grocery industry, announced they’d devised standardized, voluntary regulations to make clear what all of those dates actually mean.

Manufacturers currently use 10 separate label phrases including “expires on” and “better if used by.” However, going forward, manufacturers will be encouraged to use only one of two phrases: “Use by” and “Best if Used by.” [2]

Right now “use by” represents a manufacturer’s best guess of how long a product maintains peak flavor. But many Americans still view the label as an expiration date, and won’t touch the product after the date on the packaging. “Best if Used by” will replace “use by” to hopefully make it clearer that this is only an indicator of quality, not an indicator of whether a product has gone bad. Most of the time, it’s perfectly fine to eat a food that is past its “use by” date.

One industry survey found that 91% of Americans have mistakenly tossed past-date food in the trash, when the label only indicates that the product might be past its peak quality. [1]

The Department of Agriculture and an alliance of environmental groups have been urging the grocery industry to clarify these labels. After all, tossing out a perfectly good product is akin to throwing a handful of dollars in the trash. More importantly, it contributes to the already massive problem of food waste, which clogs landfills and causes greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: The Washington Post

ReFED, which describes itself on its website as “A data-driven guide for businesses, government, funders, and nonprofits to collectively reduce food waste at scale,” estimates that the standardized date labeling could divert 398,000 tons of waste. [1]

Read: 10 Ways to Stop Food Waste

Says Emily Broad-Leib, the director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic:

“I think it’s huge. It’s just an enormous step. It’s still a first step — but it’s very significant.” [1]

The industry groups are pushing for manufacturers and retailers to start using the new labels immediately, but they have until July 2018 to make the changes. And because following the regulations is voluntary, it’s unlikely that every company will adopt them.

A number of major manufacturers have indicated that they’re on board with the new labels, including Walmart, the largest American grocer. The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association expect the new labels will be widely adopted, partly because the standards were authored by a working group comprised of large food company representatives.

Read: Here Is Walmart’s Plan to Reduce Food Waste

Says Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability at the Grocery Manufacturers Association:

“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.” [2]

Sources:

[1] The Washington Post

[2] CBS News

The Washington Post


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About Julie Fidler:
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.