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US Food Labels Changing

frozen pork chops in a white sealed plastic container

Industry leaders in the US have agreed on a simplified approach to packaging, to reduce confusion in consumers.

They have decided to tackle the various “use by” wordings on labels by restricting the choices for manufacturers to just two.

Food Label Confusion

For decades, Americans have been confused over the labels on their food. They may have seen terms such as use by, best by, best before, sell by, or freeze by, to name just a few of the options. This has led to a lot of bafflement over what the phrases actually mean.

packets of different coloured dry pasta

Many consumers often believe that the date is a food safety warning, and food that has passed it should be thrown out. In the majority of cases, however, it is only meant to indicate quality – that the taste or texture of the food would be diminished if not eaten by the date shown.

Cutting down on household food waste has been a huge aim of those in executive food jobs for a while, and this latest effort hopes to address the confusion over labels and cut down on that wastage.

A 2016 survey of US consumers discovered that more than a third of people always threw food away close to or after the use by date, with 84% doing it at least occasionally. The “when in doubt, throw it out” mindset goes some way towards explaining why US households contribute so much to the 53 million tonnes of food that the US throws out each year – a figure that does not even include farm waste.

New Rule Changes

The new rules for the food industry in the US will see manufacturing companies restricted to just two phrases. These are ‘best if used by’ and ‘use by’. The first indicates that the food is better in quality if used before the date. The second indicates a perishable item which should be thrown out to avoid illness – for example, milk.

Standardising date labels has been picked out as the most effective way that businesses and consumers can both save money. This was decided by ReFED, a consortium of businesses, NGOs, and food waste fighters. They created a list of 27 possible remedies to food waste.

Changing the date labels will be virtually without cost for the companies, who simply reword their existing packaging and carry on as before. But it could make a huge difference. A study in the UK discovered that this measure could eliminate 350,000 tonnes of food waste in the home and save around £1 billion.

Better Education Needed

But many experts are wondering why we have reached this point in the first place. Education may be needed to help people understand when it is fine to eat food, and when it isn’t, without the aid of a use by date.

After all, there are plenty of situations when a use by date may not apply. Dried goods, such as pasta, ought to be fine for many years after their use by dates. On the other hand, perishables which are not kept in ideal conditions may go bad before the date indicated on their packaging.

While there may be more measures in the works for helping consumers reduce the amount of food they throw out, education should be foremost. Consumers should be able to tell by the look, smell, or taste of food whether it is safe to eat.

This is not just a question of food waste, but also of reducing illness. People with better knowledge of food would be able to avoid eating something that they shouldn’t to avoid food poisoning.