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FLPC Releases Issue Brief Calling for Federal Legislation to Standardize Date Labels

The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) released an issue brief today that outlines the need for federal legislation to standardize date labels on food products. Date Labels: The Case for Federal Action describes existing government and industry efforts to standardize date labels and presents the case for why federal action is needed.

40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten. This wasted food has significant impacts on the economy, food insecurity, and the environment. The majority of food waste happens in consumer homes and consumer-facing businesses, and confusion over date labels is a significant cause of food waste.

Federal law does not regulate the use of date labels on food products, with the exception of infant formula. In the absence of federal regulation, states have developed their own date labeling laws. 41 states require date labels on at least some food products, and 20 states prohibit or restrict the sale or donation of food past the labeled date. Even in states that require date labels, manufacturers have broad discretion over how the dates on foods are selected. Most date labels are indicators of quality; however, many consumers and businesses mistakenly believe they are indicators of food safety. According to a survey conducted by FLPC, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and the National Consumers League, 84 percent of consumers at least occasionally discard food close to or past the date on its package, and one-third of consumers report they always do so.

Recognizing that confusion over date labels leads to unnecessary food waste, government and industry actors have made significant efforts in recent years to standardize date labeling language on food products. At the state level, eleven states introduced bills in the 2017-2018 legislation session that seek to standardize date labels or eliminate unnecessary date labeling requirements. On the industry side, the most significant industry action was the voluntary Product Code Dating Initiative, launched in 2017 by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). This initiative encourages manufacturers and retailers to use standard date labeling phrases on consumer-facing food packages to indicate quality and safety (read FLPC’s blog post about the initiative here). Most recently, FDA released a letter encouraging the food industry to use the phrase “Best if Used by” on food products to indicate quality. This is the same standard quality date phrase used by the Product Code Dating initiative.

These initiatives represent significant progress, but as the issue brief demonstrates, they are not sufficient to achieve standardization of date labels nationally. Due to the continuing patchwork of state date labeling laws, voluntary initiatives cannot fully cure inconsistent date labeling language. FLPC’s analysis found that the Product Code Dating Initiative conflicts with state laws in 27 states for at least one food product, meaning that manufacturers cannot use the voluntary standard in those states.

Moreover, state and industry initiatives cannot provide consistent education to consumers across the country. Because manufacturers cannot use the same date labeling language everywhere due to state laws, it remains difficult to educate consumers about what date labeling language means.

This issue brief demonstrates that federal legislation is necessary to achieve true standardization of date labels nationally. Federal legislation should require that manufacturers or retailers who choose to use date labels on foods use one of two prescribed labeling phrases: “BEST If Used By” to indicate quality, and “USE By” to indicate safety. These terms are consistent with the voluntary Product Code Dating Initiative. Federal legislation should also preempt state laws that ban the sale or donation of food past the quality date, and create a national consumer education campaign to inform the public about the meaning of these labeling terms.

FLPC has been advocating for the standardization of date labels since the release of its 2013 report, The Dating Game. We are pleased to see so much progress towards standardizing date labels at the state and industry level, but these efforts have limitations. As this issue brief demonstrates, it is time for a federally standardized date labeling system, and we look forward to working with federal and industry partners to develop such a system.

Read Date Labels: The Case for Federal Action.