December 14, 2019

FDA Addresses Consumer Confusion Over Use By Dates

Frank Yiannas, who is Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response for the FDA, wrote a letter to the food industry on May 23, 2019, addressing consumer confusion over “Sell By,” “Use By,” and “Best If Used By Dates,” as they probably contribute to food waste in the United States. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 30% of the food in this country is lost or wasted at the retail or consumer level. That translates to 133 billion pounds of food lost, that is worth $161 billion. Every year.

FDA Addresses Consumer Confusion Over Use By Dates

The use of these phrases is voluntary, and are used to describe quality dates, not spoilage dates. In a 2007 survey of U.S. consumers, less than half were able to distinguish between the meanings of these commonly used phrases. The FDA has found that food waste by consumers results from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding these phrases. This confusion accounts for about 20% of consumer food waste.

Industry, non-profit agencies, and the government have been trying to reduce consumer confusion about these phrases. Research has found that “Best If Used By” is the phrase most likely to communicate that the date indicates optimal quality.

Consumer also need education about storage of perishable foods.  FDA is engaged in consumer education about this issue, trying to reduce food waste, to provide advice on safe food storage, and to reduce confusion about quality-based date labeling. The most important piece of information is that if it is stored properly, a packaged or processed food product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality after the quality date has passed.

The USDA updated information on food product date labeling in 2016. The agency encourages food manufactures who want to apply a date label to use “Best If Used By.” The USDA also stated 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 Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institution sought to simplify product date labels in 2017. They recommend that “Best If Used By” should be used to indicate a decline in quality after that date, but the food should be safe to eat. The “Use By” date should apply to perishable products that should be discarded after that date.

The FDA does advocate the use of “Best If Used By,” about the quality of the food, but that agency is not currently addressing the use of a “Use By” product date label for safety reasons.

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