Industry Pushes for Fewer Product Date Labels

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Consumers across America share frustration over food labels; or, more specifically, "expiration" labels. These are not actually "expiration dates", per se: but rather there are now almost a dozen markers that indicate several different things-hence all the confusion.

"Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled "Best if Used By" date", reads the agency's guidance for food companies, grocers, and consumers.

Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the "Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook", said almost 90% of Americans are misinterpreting date labels and discarding food away prematurely, accounting for almost $162 billion worth of food wasted each year. Similarly, the label "sell by" typically indicates that a store should try to move that product as soon as possible so that consumers can acquire it within its peak freshness or quality range.

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"We can help consumers from throwing away food unnecessarily which puts more money in their pocketbook", said Meghan Stasz with the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Studies show that almost 44% of food waste in landfills is the result of consumers. "Food retailers and manufacturers are working towards the common goal of bringing consistency and greater clarity in product date label messaging".

The food industry has stepped up and made considerable progress in reducing food waste.

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"The customer comes first in our business, and this voluntary industry initiative provides shoppers with clear, easily understood date label information, so our customers can be confident in the product's quality and safety", said Joe Colalillo, president of ShopRite of Hunterdon County, Inc. and chairman and CEO of Wakefern Food Corp.

The "BEST" label will apply to products that "may not taste or perform as expected, but is still safe to use or consume", and the "USE" label will instruct customers to throw the product away after the listed date, a press release announcing the initiative jointly released by the organizations said.

"There's always this habit of going to the back of the shelf and taking the milk with the date that's the furthest out", explains Emily Broad Leib, who is the director of Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.

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"Sometimes I think it's slightly confusing. It's an example of the food industry really stepping up and stepping forward to address a consumer challenge".

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