The Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to the food industry on Thursday, urging companies to get behind the initiative to standardize the use of the phrase "best if used by" on packaged food labels.
"Consumer research has shown that this phrasing helps consumers understand that the date label is about quality, not safety, and that products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly," says Frank Yiannas, a deputy commissioner at the FDA.
Yiannas says confusion over competing labels — such as "sell by" or "use before" — accounts for about 20% of food waste in Americans' homes. And this message comes at a time when Americans toss out about $161 billion worth of food each year. This equates to about one-third of all food produced in the U.S. being wasted or lost.
"Imagine going to the grocery store and buying three bags of groceries, and as you walk out, you throw one of those bags in the garbage can," Yiannas says. "It sounds ridiculous, but in essence that's what's happening every day."
Leading players in the food industry support the guidance from the FDA. "We absolutely support the message the FDA is sending out today," says Meghan Stasz, vice president of sustainability and packaging at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
In 2017, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute introduced a voluntary initiative to streamline the date labels on packaged foods. As we've reported, there's a similar global effort backed by the Consumer Goods Forum, a network of big players in the food industry.
Stasz says that her industry tested various date label terms with consumers. "'Best if used by' was a clear winner," she says. And she says it means exactly what it says: The product is at its peak — or freshest — if consumed before that date. "After that date on the package, [the foods] may taste a little stale, but they're still perfectly safe to consume."
Stasz says food companies that are members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association have already embraced the guidance to use "best if used by," with more than 80% of the products in the portfolios of GMA members using it. "We've seen great progress towards adoption," Stasz says.
There's no federal requirement to put date labels on food packages. The only exception is with infant formula. The FDA mandates that infant formulas be labeled with a "use by" date. The food industry uses the "use by" date in other instances when food safety is a concern. "'Use by' is basically a discard date," Stasz explains. "So, after that date on the package, the consumer [should] discard that product."
This labeling guidance applies to shelf-stable, packaged foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has similar recommendations for the voluntary date labels on perishable products that it regulates, such as meat, poultry and eggs.
The federal government has established a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. "While we don't have a regulatory mandate [on date labels], we do have a responsibility to play a role in trying to reduce food waste, and that's why the FDA is taking this measure," Yiannas says.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to the food industry today urging companies to reduce the confusion over date labels on packaged food. Instead of competing phrases such as sell by or use before, the FDA is backing an initiative to adopt one uniform standard. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the FDA's action is part of an effort to reduce food waste.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's estimated that we toss out about a third of our food in the U.S. That's about $160 billion worth of wasted food each year. Here's FDA deputy commissioner Frank Yiannas.
FRANK YIANNAS: Just imagine walking into your favorite grocery store, buying three bags of grocery and, as you walk out, you throw one of those bags in the garbage can. Sounds ridiculous, but in essence, that's what's happening every day across the country.
AUBREY: He says one reason people waste so much food is the confusion over date labels. There are lots of terms out there. People see the phrases use before or sell by and assume they should toss food out after that date.
YIANNAS: So it's very confusing for consumers.
AUBREY: To clear up that confusion, the FDA is urging food companies to adopt the same language. So what you should expect to see more of in the future is this phrase - best if used by. Here's what it means.
YIANNAS: If a product reaches that date, it exceeds that date, it doesn't mean that the product is no longer good or that it's unsafe. It simply means that it's not at optimal quality.
AUBREY: In other words, the food could be stale or past its peak freshness. Major players in the food industry are also behind this effort to streamline date labels. Here's Meghan Stasz of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
MEGHAN STASZ: We absolutely support the message the FDA is sending out today.
AUBREY: Her organization along with the Food Marketing Institute introduced a voluntary initiative to streamline date labels on packaged foods back in 2017. Leading up to this, they tested various phrases with consumers, and they found exactly what the FDA has found about which term works best.
STASZ: Best if used by was a clear winner.
AUBREY: So two years ago, the companies that belong to the Grocery Manufacturers Association began to adopt this phrase. And Stasz says a recent survey finds more than 80% of the products in the portfolios of the member companies already carry the label.
STASZ: We've seen really great progress towards adoption nationwide.
AUBREY: She says the industry also supports the use of one additional date label phrase for some foods that run a higher risk of spoilage. This is the phrase use by, which she says you may continue to see.
STASZ: So use by is a - basically a discard date. So we would recommend that after the date on the package, the consumer discard that product.
AUBREY: The FDA requires infant formulas to be labeled with a use by date. Otherwise the FDA's Frank Yiannas says there are no federal requirements to use date labels on food packages.
YIANNAS: While we do not have a regulatory mandate, we do have a responsibility to play a role in trying to reduce food waste at home. And so that's why FDA is taking this measure.
AUBREY: The federal goal is to cut food waste in half by the year 2030. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.