The Food and Drug Administration is urging manufacturers of packaged foods to simplify their food labels.
In a recently released letter, the FDA notes confusion around terms denoting how long consumers have to use food products before they begin spoiling. Rather than force consumers to parse differences in phrases like “sell by,” “best by,” or “best if used by,” the FDA said it “strongly supports” manufacturers voluntarily adopting “best if used by” as an industry standard, in part to reduce food waste.
“Studies have shown that [“best if used by”] best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly,” the FDA said through a May 23 letter.
‘Best If Used By’ vs. ‘Use By’
The FDA notes that its suggestion refers to quality and not safety: “best if used by” dates refer to the point at which a product’s taste or appearance might begin declining, whereas the “use by” date marks the point at which food becomes more dangerous to eat.
In 2017, 25 packaged goods and grocery retail companies met and produced similar guidelines for simplifying and streamlining food packaging. They recommended adopting “best if used by” and “used by” as standards for quality and safety, respectively. Subsequent consumer sentiment research has validated their decision.
In its letter, the FDA notes that it regulates approximately 80 percent of U.S. foods. It explicitly declined to weigh in on whether “use by” is the best marker for product safety “at this time.”
Confusion around these types of terms reportedly contributes to the $161 billion worth of food that U.S. consumers toss out each year. About 20 percent of food waste comes from misunderstanding over the meaning of “use by” labels, according to Frank Yiannas, a deputy commissioner at the FDA.
“Imagine going to the grocery store and buying three bags of groceries, and as you walk out, you throw one of those bags in the garbage can,” Yiannas told NPR. “It sounds ridiculous, but in essence that’s what’s happening every day.”
Besides paying attention to labels, the FDA also urges consumers to examine their food routinely to see if its good enough to eat. If products have changed color, consistency, or texture, consumers should avoid them.
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