WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 – In an effort to simplify food purchases and reduce food waste, grocery manufacturers and retailers have launched an industry-wide effort to adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of products.

The new initiative streamlines the myriad date labels on consumer product packaging down to just two standard phrases. “BEST If Used By” describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.

USE By” applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.

Currently, more than 10 different date labels on packages – such as Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By or Best By – can result in confused consumers discarding a safe or usable product after the date on the package, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

These two major trade associations for retailers and consumer product manufacturers are leading the voluntary effort. They’ve encouraged their members to immediately begin phasing in the common wording with widespread adoption urged by the summer of 2018.

“Eliminating confusion for consumers by using common product-date wording is a win-win because it means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error,” said Jack Jeffers, vice president of quality at Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on this issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen – and out of landfills.” 

The food industry has stepped up and made considerable progress in reducing food waste. GMA and FMI joined with the National Restaurant Association in 2011 to create the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which is helping companies find ways to cut food waste. GMA member companies recycled 97 percent of food waste from operations and donated 156 million pounds of food to food banks in 2015. FMI members reported 1.5 billion pounds in diverted food waste, including 390 million pounds of food donated to food banks.

The food industry announcement follows extensive work by the House Agriculture Committee during the 114th Congress to explore the issue of food waste and potential solutions.

"Last Congress, the committee examined the issue of food waste through a full committee hearing, roundtable discussion, ‘food waste fair’, and extensive meetings with both consumer and industry stakeholders," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway.

"Virtually every discussion included concerns regarding waste generated as a result of consumer confusion about the various date labels on foods and what they mean. I am pleased to see the grocery manufacturing and retail industries tackling this issue head on. Not every issue warrants a legislative fix, and I think this industry-led, voluntary approach to standardizing date labels is a prime example.”

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, also applauded the new industry standards, but plans to introduce legislation addressing food waste.

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“Per capita, food waste in the U.S. costs a family of four $1,500 every year. Much of that food is perfectly good to eat, but gets thrown out anyway because of confusing, inconsistent, and sometimes misleading food-date labels,” said Pingree. She plans to reintroduce legislation to set a national uniform system for date labeling which she says is “the only way to fully resolve inconsistent state date labeling laws across the country.”

Last May, Pingree, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced the first legislation to standardize date labels. The measure does not mandate that manufacturers put date labels on food, but provides standardized language if they decide to do so. Part of the legislation would also make sure states cannot restrict the donation of food that has passed its quality date, something that can only be accomplished through a legislative fix.

Pingree plans to reintroduce that legislation, the Food Date Labeling Act, in the coming weeks. She also plans to reintroduce another bill, the Food Recovery Act, which takes comprehensive steps at the federal level to address the problem of food waste.