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All of those confusing dates on food product labels — "sell by," "use by," "enjoy by," "best before," etc. — may soon be coming to an end. And as they do, American families are set to save billions of dollars annually on food waste, a huge problem in this and many other countries around the globe.
"Almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food and, generally speaking, they're not regulated in the way many people believe," stated a 2013 report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Earth's Best Defense (NRDC). "The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality [or in some cases, looks its best], not when it is unsafe to eat."
That same report also indicated that 91 percent of consumers have thrown away food out of concern about its safety due to the expiration date. In many cases, the date posted is actually intended to communicate information to the store that’s marketing the food item.
"This misinterpretation of dates costs money," said the researchers. "Americans spend between $1,365 and $2,275 annually per household of four on food that is ultimately thrown out. While there is no research to indicate how much of that is due to expiration date confusion here in the U.S., a British study estimated that 20 percent of food wasted in British households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. If this same estimate were true for the U.S., it would mean that the average household is discarding $275 to $455 per year of good food because of confusion over date labels."
To help put a dent in this waste and the related costs, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the two largest trade groups for the grocery industry, announced on Feb. 15 that they have adopted a new phrasing they believe will bring some clarity to food expiration dates. The term "use by" will still be acceptable, but the preferable phrase is "Best If Used By."
The two groups indicated the phrase "use by" is still suitable because most consumers and marketers view it as a safety designation. However, "Best If Used By" focuses more on the quality of the food product. It is the manufacturer's best guess as to the latest date the food should be sold or consumed.
While the new phrasing is expected to be widely accepted by food processing facilities, grab-and-go food retailers, restaurants and other locations where food is sold, you should know this is a voluntary move by the industry. The goal is to avoid having different states implementing their own regulations, which could make it very difficult for the food industry to implement.
Also, shoppers should not expect the new expiration date phrasing right away. The goal is to have it fully implemented by July 2018. For "grab-and-go" food retailers such as convenience stores, this extra time will allow them to select more technologically advanced food labeling systems — not only to protect the consumer and help minimize food waste, but also to control their own costs. Handwriting labels takes time and, even with appropriate training, human error is common.
New advanced labeling systems have touchscreen terminals that allow the food retailer to make date updates right on the screen and in different languages. Food handling, safety and cooking information can be added. This information can then be shared (online or by Ethernet) with other terminals at other food outlets owned or operated by the same retailer. This further helps eliminate errors and saves time.
The food industry, along with many others concerned about the staggering amount of food waste here and around the world, has high hopes for this new phrasing. And with advanced food labeling systems, implementing these changes will be fast, easy and cost-effective.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.