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Industry Pushes for Fewer Product Date Labels

A voluntary industry-wide undertaking of retailers and manufacturers wants to lessen consumer confusion regarding product date labels through the adoption of standard wording on packaging about products’ quality and safety.

The 10-plus date labels now on packages, including Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better if Used By or Best By, often lead consumers to throw out a product that is in fact safe or usable.

Spearheaded by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the initiative eschews the multiple labels in favor of only two standard phrases. “BEST If Used By” refers to product quality, in situations where the product may not taste or perform as expected after a certain date but is still safe to consume. “USE By” applies to products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time that requires them to be eaten by the date listed on the package and discarded after that date.

Retailers and manufacturers are urged to start phasing in the standard wording immediately, with widespread adoption recommended by the summer of 2018. The gradual adoption of the voluntary standard is meant to give companies the flexibility to make changes consistently across their product categories.

“Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based GMA.

“The shopper remains the most critical audience in our industry, and as the associations representing major food brands and retailers, we want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible,” added Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of Arlington, Va. “While we all need nourishment, both retailers and manufacturers also want consumers to have the best experience possible in their stores and consuming their products.”

“The customer comes first in our business, and this voluntary industry initiative provides shoppers with clear, easily understood date label information, so our customers can be confident in the product’s quality and safety,” observed Joe Colalillo, president of ShopRite of Hunterdon County Inc. and chairman and CEO of Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp. “Food retailers and manufacturers are working towards the common goal of bringing consistency and greater clarity in product date label messaging. We want to ensure our customers have meaningful information that helps them make the best decisions for their families, both in the store when they shop and when they enjoy foods at home.”

“Research shows that the multitude of date labels that appear on foods today are a source of confusion for many consumers,” said Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety and health for Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart. “As advocates for the customer, we’re delighted with this industry-wide, collaborative initiative that will provide consistency, simplify consumers’ lives, and reduce food waste in homes across America.”

The initiative also aims to cut down on food waste, since around 44 percent of food waste sent to landfills comes from consumers, and statistics indicate that clearing up consumer confusion regarding product date labeling could lower total national food waste by 8 percent. To address this issue, GMA and FMI teamed with the National Restaurant Association in 2011 to create the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which helps companies find ways to reduce food waste.

“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, VP of Quality at Dallas-based Dean Foods, which led GMA’s work on the issue. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen – and out of landfills.”

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