In an effort to reduce food waste nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued a new recommendation to food and beverage companies to use the term “best if used by” in their date coding.
Federal regulations only require infant formula to have product dating, though the majority of food and beverage brands do so voluntarily. While date coding has become an unofficial standard, the terminology around the labeling is not, with brands using “best if used before,” “sell-by,” “use-by,” “consume-by,” and “best before” on packaging.
According to the USDA, the result is a confusing set of standards for consumers and retailers in which product is needlessly discarded or removed from shelves. By switching to a “best if used by” date, the agency hopes consumers will understand that products are still safe to consume and retailers may keep products on shelves longer.
A USDA spokesperson told NOSH that research and surveys have shown that the phrase “best if used by” is easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality, as opposed to safety.
It remains to be seen if consumers will see things the same way and discard less food.
Jeff Grogg, Managing Director and Product Development of JPG Resources, a food and beverage consulting firm focused on operational strategy, told NOSH that he believes the change will reduce food waste, but that the guidance may be more beneficial for shelf stable products items such as crackers and chips.
“When consumers are uncertain about food safety, they act more conservatively, meaning they are more likely to throw [food] away,” noted Grogg.
Lucinda Wright, a director of marketing and strategy at JPG, elaborated that “the level of food safety is still a key driver of behavior. Some foods cause more concern (meats) than others (breads), so consumers are more likely to throw about ‘high fear’ foods based on whatever date is listed vs. eating it and then making a quality judgement.”
Both Wright and Grogg believe that regardless of what date code system is used, consumers are still unaware of the nuances of federal regulations and food safety. As a result, they also believe putting the consumer in the position of determining food safety is a difficult choice; If consumers get sick, for example, they may blame on brand unless the label clearly states that the product should not be consumed.
However, the new recommendations may reduce the amount of product that is discarded from store shelves
“If a retailer demands that 50-75 percent of code is remaining – and they do – then the brand has a short selling window. So if a product has an 8 mo shelf life, the brand may only have 2 months from production to deliver it into a customer warehouse.” Grogg explained. “This puts brands at risk, especially smaller brands or new items that might have lower velocities or unknown sales trajectories. And it creates issues for small brands who have to hit contract manufacturer minimum volumes, and then move that inventory really fast.”
To help avoid these issues,, JPG advises many clients (especially “low fear” products) to long-code products, which allows producers voluntarily pull product rather than having retailers return them because it’s out of code.
“While this is a nice gesture by USDA, I don’t see it as being impactful unless they really communicate well to consumers directly and create a behavioral change in household behavior,” Grogg said. “And, there are other systemic issues in the system that probably create more waste (certainly economic if not always landfill) due to retailer and distributor policies.”