FDA supports ‘best if used by’ date labelling

The US FDA is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardise the use of the term “best if used by” on its packaged-food labelling if the date is simply related to optimal quality — not safety.

Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of food waste in the home. That’s not surprising when you consider the variety of terms used with date labels, such as “use before”, “sell by”, “expires on” and many more.

In a letter to the food industry, Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner of food policy and response, cited studies that have shown that “best if used by” optimally conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.

“We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this ‘best if used by’ terminology,” said Yiannas. “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”

Manufacturers generally apply date labels at their own discretion and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the date up to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavour.

The key exception to this general rule is for infant formula products. These products are required to bear a “use by” date, up to which the manufacturer has confirmed that the product contains no less than a minimum amount of each nutrient identified on the product label, and that the product will be of an acceptable quality.

In 2017, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) brought together 25 consumer packaged goods and grocery retail companies to “simplify and streamline” product date labels to reduce consumer confusion.

In January 2017, the group recommended the use of two introductory phrases for product date labels: “best if used by” and “use by”.

In his letter to the industry, Yiannas noted that “while GMA and FMI have recommended the use of the introductory phrase ‘use by’ to indicate the date by which products should be consumed or discarded for safety reasons, FDA is not addressing the use of a ‘use by’ product date label for safety reasons at this time.”

Yiannas concluded by urging industry to use the ‘best if used by’ labelling.

“As approximately 80% of the foods in the United States are regulated by the FDA, we would like to inform our regulated food industries that FDA strongly supports industry’s voluntary industrywide efforts to use the ‘best if used by’ introductory phrase when choosing to include a quality-based date label to indicate when a product will be at its best flavour and quality.

“The FDA announcement supporting standardised use of ‘best if used by’ is a win for American consumers and another proof point of the CPG industry’s commitment to providing consumers with the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions,” said Geoff Freeman, GMA president and CEO.

Source: Institute of Food Technologists