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A Helpful Move on Food Date Labels

This blog was originally published by NRDC on June 6, 2019. Written by: Emily Broad Leib and Katie Sandson, Jackie Suggitt at ReFED, and JoAnne Berkenkamp at NRDC.

Toss it after the date on the label or keep it for later? That’s the question consumers face on a daily basis when confronted with the date labels on food. Confusion about what date labels do and don’t mean is a leading contributor to food waste and efforts to streamline date labels have become a core tenet of the food waste reduction playbook. 

In a helpful move in that direction, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, Frank Yiannas, recently penned an open letter to the food industry promoting the benefits of a streamlined food date labeling system. Yiannas’ letter encourages the food industry to use the standard labeling phrase “Best If Used By” on food products to indicate food quality, consistent with other recent government and private sector date labeling initiatives.

FDA’s letter also helpfully points out that, “If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality after the quality date.” If you live in a household where some members want to pitch everything past the quality date and others want to keep it, the “keepers” can now cite the FDA in making your case to save that food for later.

NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) have advocated for standardizing date labels at the federal level since the release of our 2013 report, the Dating Game. In the 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, ReFED identified standardized date labeling as one of the top three solutions to reduce food waste. As a group, we welcome FDA’s statement. We also believe that federal legislation continues to be vital for establishing a consistent, uniform labeling system nationwide. 

In the absence of federal regulation, consumers face a dizzying array of date labels on the foods they purchase. Forty-one states require a date label on at least some food products, and twenty states prohibit or restrict the sale or donation of food past the labeled date.  Those inconsistencies make it tough for manufacturers to comply and sow the seeds of confusion among consumers.

Also, manufacturers typically use date labels to indicate quality, but many consumers and businesses mistakenly believe they are indicators of food safety. This confusion leads consumers to unnecessarily throw out food once it reaches the quality date. An estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste is caused by confusion about the meaning of date labels.

FDA’s letter builds on various recent initiatives, including those spearheaded by the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, USDA and ReFED, to standardize date labeling language and better communicate to consumers when date labels are meant to indicate quality and when they indicate food safety. FDA regulates approximately 80% of foods in the United States, making their recent statement particularly welcome.

However, the steps taken to date are not sufficient to achieve uniform date labeling across the country given the patchwork of state requirements and other factors.(See this issue brief for more information about state law conflicts). Also, FDA recommendations do not address the use of a standard term to indicate when food has been date labeled for safety and should be discarded once the date has passed. 

Federal legislation will be needed to truly tackle this issue.  Federal legislation should require that manufacturers and retailers that choose to use date labels use only one of two standard labeling phrases: “BEST If Used By” to indicate quality or “USE By” to indicate safety. Federal legislation should also override state laws that restrict the sale or donation of food past the quality date and support a national campaign to educate consumers.

NRDC, FLPC and ReFED are pleased to see FDA take this step to advance date label uniformity. We hope that federal legislation can be enacted to further reduce consumer confusion and keep more good food from going to waste.