Three U.S. regulatory agencies agree. We should standardize the voluntary date-code labeling for food sold in the United States as part of a new strategy to fight food and packaging waste.
In April 2019, the federal government announced the launch of an interagency effort called the “Winning on Reducing Food Waste FY 2019-2020 Federal Interagency Strategy.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are working together on the strategy.
The agencies have identified six priority areas, which are to:
1. Enhance interagency coordination.
2. Increase consumer education and outreach efforts.
3. Improve coordination and guidance on food loss and waste measurement.
4. Clarify and communicate information on food safety, food date labels and food donations.
5. Collaborate with private industry to reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain.
6. Encourage food waste reduction by federal agencies in their respective facilities.
Food-brand owners and their packaging suppliers will be watching the fourth priority area—specifically food safety and date labeling—the most carefully.
In a written announcement with details of the strategy, Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response, stated, “The issue of food safety and food waste are intertwined, with research showing that there is confusion over the meaning behind date labeling terminology on food packages that have an adverse effect on food waste. Contrary to popular beliefs, date labeling on food packages are often intended to communicate time ranges for optimal food quality, not safety.”
He added, “With more than one-third of all available food uneaten through waste or loss and one in six Americans suffering a foodborne illness each year, it’s clear that many people are unnecessarily discarding food in fear of food safety issues. This is why the FDA is focused on taking steps to make date labeling on foods clearer and easier for consumers to determine when a food should be discarded. We remain committed to working with the EPA and USDA to better educate Americans on how to reduce food waste and how to do it safely.”
In the following exclusive interview, Yiannas answers Packaging Digest’s questions about the interagency strategy and its potential effect on packaging.
With regard to food date labeling, what are the next steps as the agencies implement the food-waste-reduction strategy?
Yiannas: FDA is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardize the terminology used on voluntary quality-based date labeling on packaged foods. Consistent with the voluntary industry standard that was put forward by GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Assn.) and FMI (Food Marketing Institute) in 2017, we are encouraging manufacturers that choose to apply a quality-based date label to packaged foods do so by using the introductory phrase “Best If Used By.” Studies have shown that this terminology best conveys to consumers that the date label is about optimal quality, not the safety of the food, and that it does have to be discarded upon reaching that date if it has been are stored properly and shows no signs of significant spoilage. This is also consistent with a 2016 recommendation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Do you expect the ultimate guidance from the agencies to include changes to on-pack food date codes?
Yiannas: Not at this time, because neither Congress nor FDA has mandated the use of open-code date labels on packaged foods. With a few exceptions, the practice of putting date labels on foods for quality evolved at the will of the industry and remains voluntarily.
How might food date codes change?
Yiannas: Over time, we expect to see the multitude of various date labels used to be reduced as industry aligns upon a more standardized best practice—the Best If Used By terminology.
When would changes to food date codes take effect?
Yiannas: These changes are already underway and being adopted by many food producers. We hope that FDA’s support of this approach serves to further accelerate industry adoption.
Would any changes to food date codes be regulated by the federal government, or will these be voluntary changes by food manufacturers?
Yiannas: At this time, food date labels for quality reasons are industry best practices, not regulatory requirements. Nevertheless, FDA supports the standardized terminology.
How will USDA, EPA and FDA educate consumers and food manufacturers about food date codes?
Yiannas: Having a standardized date label for quality is good, but it’s not enough. That’s why FDA is encouraging the food industry to educate consumers about the meaning of information it provides on packaged foods, including open-code date labels.
FDA is also working with EPA and USDA to develop consistent and uniform consumer messages. We’ve done this through development of consumer educational materials, such as tip sheets and infographics. These materials provide simple, actionable tips to consumers on how to reduce food waste when cooking, grocery shopping or eating out.
Each agency has information on its website. For example, a web page on FDA.gov houses all our materials for consumers on how to reduce food waste and links to more information from EPA and USDA.
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