Dive Brief:

  • In a letter to the food industry, the FDA said it strongly supports voluntary industry efforts to use the “Best if used by” phrase on products when including date labels to indicate quality. 
  • The letter — signed by FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas —​ said standardized use of the phrase could reduce food waste since consumers often toss out items because of misunderstandings about what product date labels mean. The FDA estimates that confusion is estimated to account for about 20% of consumer food waste, worth about $161 billion annually.
  • The agency’s position reflects that of industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, which have advocated “Best if used by” and “Use by” to help simplify and streamline product date labels. However, FDA said it is not currently addressing implementation of “use by” product date labels.

Dive Insight:

FDA said it wants to encourage standardized labeling phrases for quality reasons because consumers continue to be confused about what date labels mean and how to use them. Besides the “best if used by” and “best by” phrases, the food industry also uses “expires on,” “use before,” “sell by” or “best sold by” on products. None of these are required by federal law except for infant formula, which must have a “use by” date.

It makes sense to standardize date label terminology, especially when it’s a phrase consumers understand and industry is already using. The move also lines up FDA policy with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose Food Safety and Inspection Service adopted similar guidance in 2016

“We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this ‘Best if Used By’ terminology,” Yiannis wrote in a consumer update from FDA. “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”

The agency didn’t explain why it wasn’t taking a position on “use by” product date labels, which GMA and FMI support. That term applies to “perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date,” FDA’s letter said. It may be the agency doesn’t want to support a term that prompts consumers to discard food when it’s trying to reduce waste. 

Industry response to the FDA’s letter has been positive so far. Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said in a statement the group’s members appreciate FDA’s acknowledgement of industry’s desire to reduce consumer confusion with this label.

“The agency’s endorsement 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,” she said.

A survey by GMA and FMI released in December found 85% of U.S. consumers thought simplified date labels would be helpful, so this latest move could push more companies to use the “Best if used by” phrase.

Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in a statement emailed to Food Dive that FDA’s support of the standardized phrase shows the CPG industry is working to help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions. GMA and the Food Marketing Institute came together with 25 companies in 2017 to find a way to reduce consumer confusion that led to unintended food waste, he said.

“Our solution was a streamlined approach to date labeling that has been recognized by USDA and now FDA as a smart approach and an important step in alleviating confusion and reducing food waste,” Freeman said in the statement.

While standardized use of the “best if used by” phrase on food products could begin to cut down on food waste, FDA supports additional consumer education by industry, government and non-government groups about what quality-based date labels mean and how to use them. Such ongoing efforts will likely be important to make sure “Best If Used By” continues to stand for something and that food waste declines as a result.

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