October 25, 2017

Quality, food safety caught up in food date labeling simplification

A coalition of some of the largest food companies in the world, including Hormel Foods and Kroger, has committed to simplify food date labeling by 2020. In September, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) approved a call to action to standardize food date labels worldwide by 2020. The plan outlined three main goals for the effort.

  • Only one label at a time: products can’t have multiple, conflicting dates
  • Choice of two labels: one expiration date for perishable items (e.g. “use by”) and one food quality indicator for non-perishable items (e.g., “best if used by”). The exact wording will be tailored to regional context
  • Consumer education to better understand what date labels mean

“This is an issue that can only truly be tackled by collaboration across the value chain,” said Peter Freedman, managing director of the CGF. “We believe simplified and consistent date labelling will help us get one step closer to meeting our resolution to halve food waste by 2025 while also helping reduce confusion for consumers.”

Representatives of both the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and the United Fresh Produce Association said that they support efforts to reduce food waste and to eliminate the confusion around existing food date labels.

“Anything that helps consumers utilize food more efficiently is something that PMA is supportive of,” said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer at PMA.

However, both organizations said the streamlined labels need to be clearly aimed at communicating messages about food quality to consumers, and not make claims about the safety of produce.

Whitaker said that treating perishable and nonperishable foods differently may give false impressions about safety. He said that while a piece of produce may not be of optimal quality after its “use by” date, it doesn’t mean it is unsafe. Inversely, if a pathogen is present in food, it will be unsafe before its “use by” date has passed.

“If there’s any implication that some foods are inherently unsafe, especially past a certain date, that is not something we would support because that’s simply untrue,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology at United Fresh.

She said she wants to know more about the education that will be conducted to make sure consumers know what the simplified labels mean. She said if there is an implication that food is necessarily safe before its “use by” date that could raise liability issues for manufactures.

Those liability concerns could, in turn, cause manufactures to shorten the window before the “use by” date, reducing the shelf life of produce products.

McEntire said “best if used by” sounds more optional than “use by,” meaning it could carry food safety implications.

In February, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association launched their own initiative across the U.S. to simplify dates that used the same “best if used by” and “use by” labels.

That effort described the difference between the two labels this way:

“The new voluntary initiative streamlines the myriad date labels on consumer products 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.”

The only mention of food safety in the release announcing the CGF’s call to action was a sentence regarding consumer education.

“Many consumers don’t know, for example, that many products are still safe to eat past the ‘best if used by’ date,” it read.

If safety issues get into the conversation and cause confusion, Whitaker said, the label changes could end up causing more food waste, not less.

“You might end up defeating your purpose,” he said.

—Scott Stuntz, managing editor




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