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Leon Kaye headshot

Grocery Trade Association Launches New Food Dating Initiative: Can It Work?

By Leon Kaye

Depending on the source, anywhere from a third to 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is wasted. One of the culprits is food dating, as outlined a few years ago in a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Confusing terms such as “better if used by,” “expires on” and “enjoy by” have one common thread – they all help contribute to massive food waste all over the U.S. The reality is that most foods are safe and edible well past the date stamped on the package, as in a few days or even several weeks – especially that box of pasta or can of green beans sitting in your cupboard. But the majority of us are programmed to zone-in on that date and toss the food away to out of safety concerns, which results in wasted money and disappearing landfill space.

Food companies are also responsible for this mess, largely due to marketing and even litigation. No company wants to lose a customer because a box of crackers does not taste as crispy or fresh as the buyer expected days or weeks after a purchase.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a new guidance on the nation’s wonky food dating system. The agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommended that food manufacturers and suppliers use the term “best if used by” as that phrase is easily understood by most consumers. Again, the USDA has more of an advisory role on this front and is not regulator: The only food product federal regulations cover is infant formula.

Now the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a large Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents food and beverage companies, says it is partnering with the Food Marketing Institute to standardize food labeling nationwide.

The voluntary guidelines suggest that food companies use two labels: “best if used by” to denote product quality and “use by” for products that are highly perishable and could pose a health risk if not consumed in a timely manner. Both trade groups are encouraging their members to adopt these labels by summer 2018.

Of course, the elephant in the supermarket aisle lurks: Will these new labeling standards even make a difference?

The USDA would be wise to launch a massive consumer education campaign to inform the public about what these phrases actually mean. As a senior scientist told TriplePundit in November, such public service announcements would be a start. The problem, however, is that until now there was way too much confusion over how to interpret these labels.

Walmart, for example, found that its private-label products included at least 47 different labeling terms until the retail giant ordered its suppliers to use the more standardized term “best if used by” or lose their shelf space at the company’s stores.

Furthermore, the USDA’s history of educating customers is dubious at best. Take the federal government’s dietary guidelines, which morphed from the square meal to the carbohydrate-heavy food pyramid and now the “my plate” recommendations. Some critics say the USDA’s suggested to load up on carbs back in the 1990s was the spark that caused obesity and diabetes to skyrocket across the U.S. over the past two decades – an assertion easy to believe considering the food and beverage industry’s longstanding opposition to dietary guidelines if their products were excluded.

Nevertheless, industry standardization is a huge step. And as the big players in the food industry such as Walmart move forward, so will the competition. But more effort is needed to reduce food waste, as in a recently introduced House bill that would make it less burdensome for farmers and food companies to donate food to those who need it the most.

Image credit: MRoach/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye