The Food and Drug Administration is supporting the food industry’s use of a “best if used by” label to reduce consumer confusion leading to food waste.

In a letter to food companies, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas said the agency “strongly supports” the industry’s efforts to standardize voluntary date labeling if the date is used only to indicate quality.

“Food waste by consumers may often result from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding what the introductory phrases on product date labels mean, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods,” Yiannas said in the letter, adding, “It has been estimated that confusion over date labeling accounts for approximately 20 percent of consumer food waste.”

“Food is too important to waste,” Yiannas told Agri-Pulse Thursday. He said he’s hoping the “harmonization and clarification will go a long way” in helping consumers keep and eat more of the food they buy.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Center for Science in the Public Interest both applauded the move. “Today’s FDA announcement supporting standardized use of ‘Best If Used By’ is a win for American consumers and another proof point of the (consumer packaged goods) industry’s commitment to providing consumers with the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions,” GMA President and CEO Geoff Freeman said.

CSPI Senior Policy Associate Julia McCarthy said, "We are pleased that FDA is addressing consumer confusion caused by the hodgepodge of dates on food products. Clarifying that dates relate to freshness, not food safety, could help consumers save money and reduce food waste."

GMA and the Food Marketing Institute convened 25 companies in 2017 “to find a solution to reduce the consumer confusion that resulted in unintended food waste,” Freeman said in a news release. “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.”

Those companies, representing both the CPG industry and grocery retailers, recommended another phrase addressing food safety for perishable products — “Use by.” But FDA said it was taking no position on that. Yiannas said more research needs to be done.

The labels, however, already are in widespread use, according to GMA. In a December report, GMA found 87 percent adoption of both phrases and projected 98 percent adoption by the end of this year.

That report also found that 88 percent of consumers surveyed said the streamlined product date labels were clear to them and 85 percent said the streamlined product date labels were helpful.

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