Standardized Wording Changes Coming for Sell-By Dates

By Lauren R.Hartman, Product Development Editor

Feb 22, 2017

The grocery industry is moving to alleviate consumer confusion over sell-by dates on food packs. Some Americans aren't completely clear exactly what "sell-by" labels are trying to tell them. To help alleviate the confusion, grocery manufacturers and retailers are partnering to adopt standard wording on packaging about both the quality and safety of food & beverage products.

The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association recently announced their adoption of standardized wording and voluntary regulations for food product date labels.  Manufacturers currently use any of 10 separate label phrases, including "expires on" and "better if used by." They'll now be encouraged to choose from only two: "Use By" and "Best if Used By."

"Use By" is a safety designation that indicates when perishable foods are no longer good and should be disposed of after that date. "Best if Used By" is more of a quality descriptor − describing product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected, but is safe to use or consume.

That's what most date labels indicate, though studies have shown many consumers believe they signal whether a product is still okay to eat. Safe or usable products can often be discarded after the date on the package. But it's fine to eat a product even well after its so-called expiration date, according to the GMA.

The dates typically indicate one of two things: a message from the manufacturer to the grocery store, telling the store when the product will look best on shelves; or they act as a subjective measure, often a guestimate of when consumers will most "enjoy" the product.

Methods for establishing the dates have been left to manufacturers, much like the label phrasing. But when consumers see a date labeled "use by" (or sometimes no label at all), they can assume that it's a food-safety claim, regulated by some objective standard.

"Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste," said Pamela G. Bailey, GMA president and CEO.

"The shopper remains the most critical audience in our industry, and as the associations representing major food brands and retailers, we want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible," echoed Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO. "While we all need nourishment, both retailers and manufacturers also want consumers to have the best experience possible in their stores and consuming their products."

The Department of Agriculture and a coalition of environmental groups have been urging this elaborative move by the FMI and the GMA. In addition to grocery waste in the form of prematurely tossed groceries, Americans spend significantly, only to end up throwing foods away. The throwaways represent a significant use of landfill space and a source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Natural Resources Defense Council indicates Americans throw away $218 billion worth of food each year. The anti-food-waste coalition ReFED estimates that 398,000 tons, or $1.8 billion, could be saved through standardized date labels. 

"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," said Jack Jeffers, vice president of quality at Dean Foods, which led the GMA's work on this issue. "It's much better that these products stay in the kitchen – and out of landfills."

Shoppers won't likely see the new labels the next time they buy groceries because the FMI and the GMA are urging manufacturers and retailers to make changes now. But they have until July 2018. Industry adoption of this new voluntary standard will occur over time, the associations say, so that companies can make the necessary changes in a way that ensures consistency across their product categories.

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