In recent years, food waste has received increasing attention. Based on studies, it appears that up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten. Waste occurs at every step in the food production and consumption chain. However, data suggest that a major loss occurs at the retail and consumer level.
In the context of food waste, the practice of product dating comes up frequently. Allegedly, the use of a range of terms such as “best by,” “sell by,” “best if used by,” “expiration date” and “use by” leads to consumer confusion and may, at least partly, be responsible for consumers discarding food that is safe and wholesome merely because it is beyond some date.
As we reported previously, in 2016, USDA updated its guidance on product dating. According to USDA, the “best if used by” term is best understood by consumers as a quality date (not a safety date). USDA updated its guidance regarding product dating to reflect this finding.
Since then, the Food Marking Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) joined forces and launched a new industry-wide effort to help reduce consumer confusion over dates on the product label and potentially help consumers reduce food waste; in 2017, FMI-GMA also endorsed use of the term “best if used by.”
On May 23, 2019, in a letter to industry, FDA expressed its strong support of the “Best if Used by” statement for quality-based dating. Consistent use of certain terms will help FDA and others in consumer education. In fact, also on May 23, 2019, FDA issued an e-mail alerting consumers to an article about date labels on packaged foods. The article clarifies that product dating generally is related to quality, not safety. Importantly, it clarifies that the “best if used by date” is not “exact science.” Consumers are advised to look at products that are past the “best if used by” date; if the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them.
In the letter to industry, FDA specifically mentions that it does not endorse the GMA and FMI recommendation to use the term “Use By” to indicate the date by which products should be consumed or discarded for safety reasons. It appears that confusion about the use of the term “use by” remains. In fact, although GMA and FMI recommend “use by” dating for safety, USDA guidance asserts that “use by” is not a safety-related date. However, for infant formula, a “use by” date is mandatory and indicates that, under the conditions prescribed by label directions, the nutrient content and quality of the formula can be guaranteed until the “use by” date. After that date, the product should not be consumed.
For food, product dating is largely voluntary. Thus, at this time, FDA can do little more than encourage standard terminology for product dating.