From “Sell By” to “Best Before” to “Best If Used By,” the many ways in which CPG products are date coded are creating consumer confusion over how long food is actually safe to eat.
Late last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempted to address consumers’ fears over food safety caused by these various, often unclear phrases in a letter to the food industry recommending the use of “Best If Used By” on food and beverage products.
“As approximately 80% of the foods in the U.S. are regulated by the FDA, we would like to inform our regulated food industries that the FDA strongly supports industry’s voluntary industry wide efforts to use the “Best if Used By” introductory phrase when choosing to include a quality-based date label to indicate when a product will be at its best flavor and quality,” Frank Yianna, FDA deputy commissioner of food policy and response, wrote in the letter.
According to the FDA, 20% of all consumer food waste is the result of confusion surrounding phrases manufacturers use on packaged foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans waste 133 billion pounds of food annually at a cost of $161 billion.
In 2016, the USDA encouraged manufacturers to use “Best If Used By,” on products after research and surveys showed that this phrase was easily understood by consumers to denote quality rather than food safety. If products are stored properly and show no signs of spoilage, they are safe to eat beyond the label’s date, according to USDA guidelines.
In February 2017, in order to streamline date labels, The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) launched at industry-wide initiative advocating for the use of “Best If Used By” as well as “Use By,” which indicates the date at which a consumer should discard a product. A similar initiative supporting the streamlined use of the two phrases was launched by the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) in October 2017. According to a GMA survey conducted in December 2018, since this recommendation, 87% of CPG products have adopted the use of these phrases. The GMA predicts this will increase to 98% by the end of this year and reach full adoption by January 2020.
The GMA stated that the FDA letter was a sign of support for its streamlined approach.
“[The] FDA announcement supporting standardized use of ‘Best If Used By’ is a win for American consumers and another proof point of the CPG industry’s commitment to providing consumers with the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions,” said GMA president and CEO Geoff Freeman in a statement.
FMI president and CEO Leslie Sarasin also released a statement expressing appreciation for FDA’s support, saying it “signals a best practice in ways industry partners can truly deliver on a promise to provide guidance to our customers that is easier to understand.”
Jennifer Adams, associate at Amin, Talati & Upadhye, a law practice specializing in the food and beverage industry, told NOSH that it was exciting to see the FDA support food waste initiatives.
“FDA’s public announcement will help educate consumers that food can still be consumed past the labeled date, and provides a clear, data-backed approach to hopefully avoid confusion and inadvertent waste of perfectly safe food,” said Adams.
Adams noted that though companies are not required to use the “Best If Used By” introductory phrase or any expiration dates, the FDA’s guidance aligns with the USDA and the food industry’s efforts to reduce the environmental and economic effects of food waste.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also expressed support for the FDA guidance, tweeting: “Kudos to @US_FDA and the U.S. food industry for working together to clarify food date labeling. American families and consumers need better guidance to keep unspoiled, nutritious food longer rather than putting it into landfills too early.”
In its letter, the FDA also stated that while GMA and FMI recommend the use of “Use By,” to denote food safety, the FDA is not addressing the use of this phrase.
Adams said that this is most likely due to FDA rules regarding infant formula. Infant formula is the only food or beverage product that requires the use of a “Use By” date code, and she said this date “is a guarantee of, among other things, the labeled nutritional values through that date.”
“It also is much easier for the agency to endorse a voluntary date that is tied to ‘best’ quality [or] integrity rather than safety, which would require more standardized testing,” Adams added.