Food Date Labels Get An Update

Date Labels

The average American family wastes about $1,800 a year because of confusing food labels that say 'use by', 'expires on', and 'best buy' on food products. So how do we read food expiration date labels the right way?

That will be explained in detail below in this news article.

Maybe the date labels can learn something from the Proposition 65 California warning labels on how to organize an effective label.

Why Are Date Labels Confusing for Consumers?

Food Date labels infograph
Food Date Labels infographic, created by the University of California
Currently, There is more than 10 different date labels on packages that use words like:
  • Sell By - This label is not for consumers, it is made for the grocery stores only.
  • Use By -This label is about safety, do not consume after this date.
  • Expires On - This is when the food goes bad.
  • Best Before - Best taste if used before this date.
  • Better if Used By - This label is about quality, use your best judgement. 
  • Best By - This label is about quality, use your best judgement. 

With so many different custom labels for dates this can result in confused consumers discarding a fresh, safe food product.

These confusing date labels waste billions worth of food every year, according to recent research by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

For example, a fruit sticker can have a ‘sell by’ 11/16/2019 on it, but the consumer might throw the fruit in the trash on the next day 11/17/2019, because the consumer does not know that the fruit could be good another 1 or 2 weeks after that date. The reason this happens is because date labels are confusing and don’t have one unified message across all states in America.  The ‘Sell by’ fruit sticker just tells the grocery store stocker employees when to get that food product off the store shelves. This does not mean that the food is bad.

This is a perfect example of how billions of American foods are wasted every year because different state have different laws for custom labeling dates.

Because of confusing date labels, About 29 billion dollars a year in consumer spending is wasted on foods put in the trash. The study shows commercial restaurants are also contributing to the food waste problem.

Household food waste accounts for 40% of all food waste in America, According to an environmental advocacy group.

The recent food study shows that a standardized date label could have the potential to save 398,000 tons of food every year in America.

The UN (United Nations) says that one-third of all food produced in the world, 1.3 billion tons of food, is wasted and thrown into the trash every year.

Simple custom Labels on food products can help teach customers the right way to read the custom label expiration date. Label printers around America agree that this new food date label can save on waste.  If consumers can read the new custom date labels with accuracy, this can help reduce food waste.

If this food waste could be represented as it's own country, it would be the third largest green house emitter on earth, right behind China and USA. The energy used to transport or manufacturer this wasted food represents about 3.3 billion tons of CO2.

How Do Consumers Interpret Food Date Labels?

Food Date Labels Infograph
Food Date Labels Infographic


By looking at the date label graph above, you can see that about 68% of consumers thought that ‘best if used by’ was an indicator of food quality. About 65% of consumers thought that ‘best by’ was an indicator of food quality. About 60% of consumers thought that ‘fresh by’ was an indicator of quality. The truth is that many of these products are still safe after what the date label says.

But a simple update to date labels can fix this problem. With clear labeling on when a food product spoils, consumers can better predict the right time to put spoiled food in the garbage.

“Household food waste accounts for 40% of all food waste in the U.S. and we estimate that 20% of household food waste is due to confusion over date labels,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp.

According to this Berkenkamp is saying that 50% of all food put in the garbage is because consumers don’t understand exactly what the food labels are saying. When food manufacturers use the following terms on food labels, it confused everyone.

  • 'Sell by'
  • 'Use by'
  • 'Expires on'
  • 'Best before'
  • 'Best buy'

Food Retailers Print New Voluntary Date Labels

Recently some food manufacturers have adopted a voluntary date label standard by just using 2 terms, 'Best by' to measure the quality, and 'use by' as a safety flag.

 In 2016, Walmart began requiring a standardized food label and date label for suppliers of its private label nonperishable foods. This requirement ensures that all Walmart Great Value products labeled for quality reasons have a “Best if used by” label on the product.

Custom date Labels on food products can help save on wasted co2 emissions, and other carbon pollution from American label printers and plant manufacturing facilities.


New US Laws Support Accurate Food Date Labels

Federal action is necessary to fix our broken system of date labels on foods.

Congress can pass legislation to ensure that standard labels are used across the country on all foods and can preempt unreasonable restrictions on past-date sale or donation, reducing the unnecessary waste of wholesome food.

The U.S House and Senate have introduced bills (S.2337 & H.R.3981 from the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019) in August of 2019 to make this law.


'Use by' Date Nutritional Labels

The use by date labels should be used when food is not safe to eat anymore. This label should be applied to all ready to eat foods like sushi, salads, sandwiches, deli meat labels, soft cheese, and and meat spreads.  


'Best By' Date Nutritional Labels

The best buy food labels should be used to indicate that a food product is no longer at it's peak quality. This custom label should be applied for raw poultry, meats, seafood, cured meats, bread, baked goods, canned products, dry goods, nuts, seeds, and fruits and vegetables that are made to be cooked.

Beginning in 2020, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) -who is two of the largest trade associations for retailers, expect that 98% of packaged goods, -the ones made by food manufacturers like PepsiCo, Coke-Cola, Kellog, and Post will have the new date labels printed on them.

“The shopper remains the most critical audience in our industry, and as the associations representing major food brands and retailers, we want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO.

“Our product code dating initiative is the latest example of how retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to help consumers and to reduce food waste,” said Pamela G. Bailey, GMA president and CEO.

Different States, Different Dates On Labels

But there is still a long way to go on making consolidated date labels. Currently 19 states require date-label language that is different from the food industries recommended language, according to Harvard’s Food Law and Policy clinic.

A good example of this is how New York does not require special food labels and date labels on any product, but all six of its neighboring states—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island—impose date labeling requirements on some food products.

For example, Montana prohibits the sale of milk more than twelve days past pasteurization,17 even though milk is generally still safe and tasty for twice that amount of time.

A Massachusetts bill would require the use of date labels that say “expires on” for ready-to-eat products, and 'best if used by' date labels on food products that are not high risk.

Many states require a 'sell by' label for certain food products, but this date label was historically intended as an indicator to the stores and retailers for stock rotation. In other words, this label was originally designed to tell the stores when to sell the product by, not a date that is relevant to consumers and buyers.

In California they recently passed legislation that requires the Department of Food and Agriculture, and the Department of Public Health to encourage food manufacturers, processors, and retailers to use the terms 'Best if used by' or 'best if used or frozen by' to indicate quality. 'Use by' or 'freeze by' would be used for safety. Hawaii has recently proposed legislation that would encourage the state health department to use the same labeling language.

“Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost effective ways that we can reduce the 40 percent of food that goes to waste each year in the United States,” said Emily Broad Leib, Director at Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC).


The Product Code Date Initiative

By providing information on when a product is safe, or most fresh, is how the Product code dating initiate works. Although these dates can be used for manufacturers or retailers, they are confusing for consumers and add billions of dollars of wasted food every year.

 The Product Code Dating Initiative has set a goal of achieving widespread industry adoption by January 2020, they do encourage food product companies to take action earlier if possible. The product Code date initiative has taken aim at this date label problem in the food industry and is taking steps towards achieving national consistency to stop consumer confusion.

GMA reports  that 87 percent of their members’ products had adopted the standard labels as of December 2018, and they anticipate 98 percent compliance by January 2020.

“Voluntary standards are not sufficient to overcome state regulations,” Ms. Berkenkamp said. “We need federal legislation to do that.”

But, she said, with a few exceptions, consumers should also learn to trust their senses.

“I see it all the time that households have one person who sniffs and another one who tosses,” Ms. Berkenkamp said. “The sniffers should win out.”

Custom printed labels can be used for many different consumer products.

Label printing can be used to advertise your products with a special message. Custom printed labels can help carry your message directly to the consumer.

Do you need a custom label printer for your private labels? If you are looking for sticker companies in Florida, or nationwide, you can contact Bay Tech Label for a free label printing quote.