New “best if used by” food label advised by USDA

Chicken and Beef at the MarketA new food labeling guidance from the USDA was announced yesterday in an effort to reduce consumer confusion over “best by” and “sell by” dates on food. In turn, the guidance also hopes to decrease the amount of wasted food and boost in-home food safety practices by providing more specific information.

Although infant formula is currently the only food product that must carry specific product dating under federal law, many food companies include such information on packaging of other food products. However, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), explains that this unregulated practice lacks uniformity in terms of date coding, and leaves many consumers wondering how long food can actually be stored safely.

“Food manufacturers frequently use a variety of phrases, such as “sell-by” and “use-by” on product labels to describe quality dates on a voluntary basis. The use of different phrases to describe quality dates has caused consumer confusion and has led to the disposal of food that is otherwise wholesome and safe because it is past the date printed on the package,” according to a recent news release from FSIS.

Now, FSIS is changing its guidance to recommend the use of “best if used by” and explains in the article that research has shown this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown. However, the guidance still explains that “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.”

The USDA guidance is only a recommendation, and even then the USDA’s regulatory oversight is generally limited to fresh produce, meat, and dairy products. The larger bulk of packaged foods falls under the Food and Drug Administration’s umbrella.

Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a recent article that she hopes a shift toward “best if used by” will keep safe food out of the garbage bins.

“USDA is rallying the industry around one commonsense label so consumers will know that food is still safe to eat even past the printed date,” Gunders said. “This will not only mean less wasted food, but also less wasted water, climate pollution and money. The FDA should follow suit on the food it oversees so all products will have the same easy-to-follow date labels.”

The USDA states that around 30% of the U.S. food supply is lost or thrown out at the retail and customer level each year and while the guidance doesn’t put a number on how much of that discarded food is safe to eat, a 2014 study out of Harvard found that 90% of Americans had thrown out food at some point based solely on the date stamped on the packaging.

Last May, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act, which would have eventually established a single nationwide standard for date labeling, and distinguished between a date that indicates a product’s quality and one that indicates the food may no longer be safe to eat. However, both the Senate and House versions of the bill have been stalled in their respective committees and show no sign of life going forward.

However, the government is now accepting comments on the revised labeling guidance from USDA for the next 60 days.

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