Big changes are on the way for U.S. grocery stores. In a new industry-wide effort to reduce consumer confusion, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced that they’re adopting standardized regulations so we can all finally understand those product date labels.
From “Sell By” and “Use By,” to “Expires On” and “Best Before,” there are currently more than 10 different date labels on food packages, leaving many of us scratching our heads wondering when food is actually safe to eat and when it should be tossed. As a result, one industry survey found that 91% of consumers have mistakenly thrown away past-date food, when the label only signals the manufacturer's guess at its peak quality. That represents a serious loss of money — and a tragic waste of food.
Now, manufacturers will be encouraged to use only two terms on their products: “Use By” and “Best if Used By.” According to The Washington Post, the former indicates when perishable foods are no longer safe to eat. “Best if Used By” is a quality descriptor, or a guess of when the manufacturer thinks the product should be consumed for peak flavor.
"Research shows that the multitude of date labels that appear on foods today are a source of confusion for many consumers," Frank Yiannas, Vice President of Food Safety & Health for Walmart, tells FMI. "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."
But don’t expect to see the new labels any time soon. While manufacturers and retailers are being urged to make the switch now, they technically have until July 2018. Even then, the standards are voluntary, so there’s no guarantee everyone will adopt them.
If you’re wondering how much this seemingly small change will impact you personally, prepare yourself for a shock. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans throw $218 billion worth of food away each year. The anti-food-waste coalition ReFED estimates that 398,000 tons, or $1.8 billion, could be saved through standardized date labels. So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.