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Help Address Food Waste and Food Insecurity Increase Understanding of Date Labeling

According to the USDA, the amount of food wasted in the United States is estimated at 30-40 percent of the food supply, on the basis of 31 percent post-harvest food losses at the retail and consumer levels, which corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. Such a substantial amount of waste has far-reaching impact on food security, resource conservation, and climate change. The following graph from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) illustrates per capita food losses and waste, at consumption and pre-consumption stages, in different regions:

Understanding Date Labeling Chart

A report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization  estimates that nearly 821 million people in the world, approximately one out of every nine people, were affected by chronic undernourishment in 2017. These statistics coupled with the burgeoning global population, estimated to exceed 9 billion by 2050, raise great concern regarding the ability to feed our global community.

So how can we begin to address this? One way is to better understand and help raise awareness of the meaning of food date labeling. There is much confusion regarding whether food is no longer safe to eat, and as a result large amounts of food is unnecessarily discarded.

As this important issue increased in visibility, IFT engaged in addressing it in a number of ways, including producing resources for outreach and communication.  

How Date Labeling Contributes to Food Waste

Because date labeling terminology and uses vary, their meaning is often misunderstood. Date labeling may be based on nutrition, quality, safety, or a combination of these purposes. Misunderstanding of the meaning of date labels can lead to unnecessary food waste, and unnecessary financial burden for consumers, needless use of limited resources at the retail level (e.g., regulatory inspection focused on food quality-related dates rather than public health-related dates), and potential food safety risk associated with perishable foods.

In early 2017, the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced that grocery manufacturers and retailers were joining together to encourage adoption of standard wording about quality and safety on packaging, represented with the phrases “Best if Used By” and “Use By,” respectively. “Best if Used By” is intended to refer to expected product quality attributes (e.g., taste or performance) rather than safety; and “Use By” is intended to indicate highly perishable products which may have a food safety concern over time when the food should be discarded. 

At the international level, in mid-2018 the Codex Alimentarius Commission revised its General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods in regards to Date Marking, eliminating the prior definition of “Sell-by” date and including definitions of two separate date marks:

  • “Best before date”/” Best quality before date” - beyond which the food may be acceptable for consumption and
  • “Use-by date”/ “Expiration date” - after which the product should not be sold or consumed due to safety and quality reasons. 

IFT is actively involved in Codex and contributed to discussion of the revision of the standard. Prior to this, IFT convened a working group of experts in academia, the food industry, the regulatory community, food banking, a chilled food association, and consulting to publish science-based information to bring clarity to the issue and support science and risk-based decision making. The  article—Applications and perceptions of date labeling of food—was published in 2014 in IFT’s peer-reviewed journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science & Food Safety.

Ultimately, food safety and security are not only global issues, but issues in which we all have a role. It is essential to leverage science-based information to raise awareness of this issue and help bring clarity to the meaning of date labels, to do what we can to help reduce food waste and address food security for our growing global population.

Help Increase Understanding of Date Labeling
To assist our community in sharing information more broadly about date labeling and increase understanding, IFT has created an online toolkit with helpful facts and FAQs as well as easy-to-share videos, graphics and social posts.

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