Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leading Brands Promise to Streamline Confusing Food Labels by 2020

By Leon Kaye


Food waste has long been a problem on both sides of the Atlantic, with estimates suggesting that as much as 40 percent of all food in the U.S. and U.K. ends up in the trash bin. One huge part of this problem is confusing food labeling. Terms such as “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” are only a few examples that often leave consumers puzzled. Now industry is taking notice. Earlier this year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said it would move to standardize food labeling nationwide.

Recently the Consumer Goods Forum, a global food industry network that boasts executives from about 400 retailers, manufacturers and food service companies, said it will urge its membership to simplify date labels by 2020.

In what the association describes as a “Call to Action,” food companies and retailers will be asked to take three steps in order to streamline date labeling. First, they will only use one label. Next, they will have a choice: a term such as “use by” for perishable items, and “best if used by” for non-perishables.

The challenge the Consumer Goods Forum faces is that with this caveat: “the exact wording will be tailored to regional context.”

Hence the third step: food companies will have to ramp up education and awareness efforts in order for their customers to grasp what exactly these date labels mean.

Where opportunities lie, however, is the chance for NGOs to step in and partner with these companies’ education efforts, whether they include in-store displays, web campaigns or public service announcements. And companies could use the assistance: the Consumer Goods Forum announced in 2015 that it seeks to slash food waste by its membership 50 percent within a decade.

Companies that are aligned with the Consumer Goods Forum include Bimbo, the largest baking company in the world; retailers Carrefour and Walmart; and food manufacturers Campbell’s Soup Company, Kellogg, Nestlé and Unilever.

For these companies, reducing food waste is more than about burnishing environmental credentials or improving their brands’ reputations. Companies can improve their profit margins as they become more efficient by tackling waste. According to a World Resources Institute study released earlier this year, for every $1 a company spends on waste diversion, it has the potential to gain a return on investment of up to $14 dollars. Better employee training, improved packaging and a leaner supply chain are just a few examples of how companies can benefit in the long run from focusing on food waste.

Consumers would score an economic boost as well, as the Consumer Goods Forum estimated that the average family in the U.S. loses $1,500 a year on food that is thrown away.

Standardizing food labels is just a start. More can be done, such as retailers’ efforts to sell imperfect, or “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Changing regulations so that companies can donate food with minimal legal risks would also help. But stopping food waste at home is necessary to halt the flow of food from homes to landfill instead of on plates and in lunch boxes.

Image credit: Folsom Natural/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