Clean labels
Manufacturers and retailers make effort to standardize message.

WASHINGTON – Grocery manufacturers and retailers have aligned in an effort to adopt clearer messaging on product date labels to reduce consumer confusion and food waste. The new initiative is led by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the two major trade associations for retailers and consumer products manufacturing.

"Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste," Pamela G. Bailey, GMA president and CEO, said in a statement.

With the current date labels on perishable foods packaging including phrases such as sell by, use by, expires on, best before, better if used by or best by, as well as other messaging, consumer confusion often leads to the discard of usable and safe products.

With 40 percent of the food in America going uneaten, it’s clear that consumers are confused by the inconsistent date labeling verbiage and throwing food away prematurely.

The new initiative cuts down the numerous label messages that lead to confusion down to two standard phrases. The “BEST if used by” speaks to product quality and describes when a product’s taste and performance may decline, but not that it is unsafe to use or consume. The “USE by” applies to those products that have a food safety timeframe, are highly perishable, and should be discarded after that date.

"The shopper remains the most critical audience in our industry, and as the associations representing major food brands and retailers, we want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible," said Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO. "While we all need nourishment, both retailers and manufacturers also want consumers to have the best experience possible in their stores and consuming their products."

Immediate use by manufacturers and retailers is encouraged along with widespread adoption by the summer of 2018. Industry adoption of the voluntary standard will take time, so companies can be flexible in making changes that ensure the consistency of their products.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s 2013 report, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash,” brought the food waste issue into the spotlight. This new initiative follows recommendations from the two sources.

“Millions of Americans are tossing perfectly good food in the trash because they think it’s not safe to eat after the date on the package,” said Dana Gunders, senior scientist for the NRDC. “This is a critical step toward clearing up the confusion and stopping all of that food, money, water and energy from going to waste.”

The announcement of the initiative was applauded by many large companies and groups. "Research shows that the multitude of date labels that appear on foods today are a source of confusion for many consumers," said Frank Yiannas, vice president of Food Safety & Health for Walmart.  "As advocates for the customer, we're delighted with this industry-wide, collaborative initiative that will provide consistency, simplify consumers' lives, and reduce food waste in homes across America."