- In a letter to the food industry, FDA said it strongly supports voluntary industry efforts to use the "Best if used by" phrase on products when including date labels to indicate quality.
- The letter, signed by Frank Yiannas, FDA's Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response said standardized use of the phrase could reduce food waste. Consumers often toss items due to misunderstanding product date labels. The FDA estimates this confusion is estimated to account for about 20% of consumer food waste, worth about $161 billion annually.
- The agency's position reflects that of industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, which have advocated "Best if used by" and "Use by" to help simplify and streamline product date labels. However, FDA said it is not currently addressing implementation of "use by" product date labels.
FDA said it wants to encourage standardized labeling phrases, in light of consumers' confusion over what date labels mean and how to use them.
Besides the "best if used by" and "best by" phrases, the food industry also uses "expires on," "use before," "sell by" or "best sold by" on products. None of these are required by federal law except for infant formula, which must have a "use by" date.
It makes sense to standardize date label terminology, especially with a phrase consumers understand and industry is already using. The move also lines up FDA policy with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose Food Safety and Inspection Service adopted similar guidance in 2016.
"We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this 'Best if Used By' terminology," Yiannis wrote in a consumer update from FDA. "This change is already being adopted by many food producers."
The agency didn't explain why it wasn't taking a position on "use by" product date labels, which GMA and FMI support. That term applies to "perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date," FDA's letter said.
Industry response to the FDA's letter has been positive. Food Marketing Institute President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said in a statement the group's members appreciate FDA's acknowledgement of industry's desire to reduce consumer confusion with this label.
With a December 2018 survey by GMA and FMI revealing that 85% of U.S. consumers believe simplified date labels would be helpful, this latest move could push more companies to use the "Best if used by" phrase.
Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of GMA, said in a statement emailed to Food Dive that FDA's support of the standardized phrase shows the CPG industry is working to help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions. GMA and FMI came together with 25 companies in 2017 to find a way to reduce consumer confusion that led to unintended food waste, he said.
"Our solution was a streamlined approach to date labeling that has been recognized by USDA and now FDA as a smart approach and an important step in alleviating confusion and reducing food waste," Freeman said.
While standardized use of the "best if used by" phrase on food products could help cut down on food waste, FDA supports additional consumer education by industry, government and non-government groups regarding what quality-based date labels mean and how to use them.
Such ongoing efforts will likely be important in ensuring that "Best If Used By" continues to stand for something — and that food waste declines as a result.