New Legislation Addresses Date Labeling Confusion

Posted on 10th Jan 2017

We’ve all been there.

We take the milk out of the refrigerator, ready to pour it onto our bowl of cereal, when we notice that yesterday’s date appears on the milk jug. We pour the milk down the drain, and with that, our breakfast—and our entire morning—is ruined.

But does it have to be?

According to a 2013 study co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, approximately $165 billion worth of food is wasted each year by consumers who do not fully understand the meaning of the dates that are printed on food packaging. The problem stems from a date-marking system that is unclear, as 90 percent of consumers assume that a date printed on a food package represents the date that the item expires—which is not always the case.

The majority of these printed dates represent the food item’s peak freshness, not edibility of the item.

Additionally, 41 states currently have food labeling guidelines and no two are the same. Varying laws across different states can muddy the water with regard to date label meanings and make compliance extremely difficult.

Lawmakers, however, are stepping in to make changes to this lack of transparency.

In May, the Food Date Labeling Act and its companion bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate and House and aim to clarify the rules for dates on food by using a standardized phrasing system. Under this act, all food items would be required to show two dates: one to show when food is at its highest quality, and the other to show when it has expired.

The bills also call for consumer education on the matter, in order to ensure a proper understanding of the new labeling system.

While the intended effects of the bill, such as saving the average family over $1,000 per year and allowing food to be sold or donated past the freshness date, should benefit households and families, the bill could provide a boost for the foodservice industry.

“Restaurants will benefit the same as consumers” says Ed Sharek, Product Development & Sourcing Manager of DayMark Safety Systems. “Food costs could potentially be driven down by the more accurate labeling, which will reduce the amount of waste.”

Additionally, Mr. Sharek notes that any growing pains foodservice establishments could suffer would be minimized “since restaurants have been using date labeling for years, so they already have an understanding of the concept.”

As support for the bills has been overwhelming, food manufacturers should begin preparing for change now. How do you see this proposed law impacting the foodservice industry? Do you agree with the proposed bill?

UPDATE: In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced new guidelines on the subject, suggesting that food packaging employ a “Best if Used By” date label. This specific terminology is intended to increase consistency and eliminate confusion with regard to terms such as “sell by” and “use by”.

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