On May 23, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a letter urging industry-wide adoption of a “Best If Used By” date. The letter seeks to simplify what has for years been a somewhat random system of various dates printed on foods that generally confused consumers and led to waste because consumers – often incorrectly – threw out food because of a printed date, even if the food was still safe to eat.

It’s interesting to note that there is only one category of foods that require date labeling: infant formula. For everything else, the labeling is voluntary. “Best By,” “Use By,” “Best if Used By,” “Sell By” and “Manufactured On” and “Harvested On” are just a number of the examples of dates that appear on the products we buy.

According to the FDA letter, The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 30 percent of food is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer level. This means Americans are throwing out approximately 133 billion pounds of food worth $161 billion each year. The FDA further states that confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste.

Clearly, the scope and scale of the food waste problem is massive. Simplifying date labels and encouraging adoption of the “Best if Used By” date label should be a step in the right direction.

What is the “Best if Used By” date?

The FDA letter, authored by Frank Yiannis, now the Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response at the FDA, explains the rational for simplifying data labels. The letter states:

Consistent with consumer research, in 2016, USDA issued updated information on food product date labeling. To help reduce consumer confusion and food waste, the USDA update encouraged food manufacturers and retailers who want to apply a quality-based date label to use the “Best If Used By” introductory phrase to convey to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown. Further, USDA emphasized that “foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best If Used By’ date.”

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.” The group recommends “Best If Used By” be used to “indicate to the consumer that, after a specified date, the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to be used or consumed.” The group recommends that “Use By” “applies to perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date.”

In a December 2018 consumer survey on the impact of the streamlined labels, The GMA found that 88 percent of those surveyed said the streamlined product date labels were clear to them and 85 percent said the streamlined product date labels were helpful. (Read Best if Clearly Labeled.)

Note, this is still voluntary (except for infant formula) as it states “manufacturers and retailers who want to apply a quality-based date label….” There’s still no requirement and nothing that states the date has to be accurate.

From a personal perspective, I hope that there is a more widespread campaign to promote these new naming schemes. I’m not sure who was surveyed but I would be surprised if 88 percent of the people I know are aware of these “Best if Used By” date label changes.

Does the “Best if Used By” Date Work for Fresh Produce?

Assuming that the government and the food industry can get the public on board with “Best If Used By” date labels as a guideline for maximum quality and “Use By” as a guideline for food safety, we may be able to solve part of the food waste problem associated with consumers tossing shelf-stable food due to concerns about food safety.

That is, this approach might work for products like soups, canned vegetables and salad dressings.

But what about for fresh produce?

Most fresh produce items do not contain any type of “Use By” label. Some contain a “Harvested On” label but, while that may be useful for industry insiders that know strawberries should last 12 or so days from harvest – in perfect conditions – most consumers don’t know that, nor should they have to. As such, a “Harvested On” date may only be useful for comparing two adjacent clamshells of strawberries. The consumer may assume that the clamshell with the later harvest date will be fresher and last longer. (I mean, isn’t this why we go to the back of the dairy case to get “fresher milk?)

Unfortunately, our data shows that even produce harvested on the same date from the same location can have shelf-lives that vary by five days or more. This is due to variations in harvest conditions and post-harvest handling. So, a consumer seeing two clamshells of berries, one with a “Harvested On” date of June 1 and the other with a date of June 2 may, in fact, pick the June 2 clamshell not knowing that it has less shelf-life than the one harvested a day earlier.

Some produce items do include a “Use By” date, or variation thereof. Are they accurate? In a recent research project, we found that they are not. We found that:

  • 67 percent of produce sampled expired before the “Use By” date. For example, the date may say the produce should remain fresh until June 15 but it spoils before that time. We found that some samples spoiled as much as seven days before the projected freshness date. This results in waste and customer dissatisfaction.
  • 33 percent of produce sampled expired after the “Use By” date. That is, the “Use By” date may say June 1 but it lasted beyond that date. In one case, we found that the produce remained fresh for another seven days after the supplier expected it to spoil. If the consumer trusts the date, they may toss the produce even though it is still fresh and safe to eat. This, again, leads to waste.

In the end, estimating shelf-life by adding a “best guess” number of days to the harvest date isn’t accurate due to variabilities in harvest conditions, post-harvest processing and handling and the produce itself.

A Better Approach

Zest Labs has taken a first principles approach to improving shelf-life management for fresh produce (and proteins). Zest Fresh uses predictive analytics and IoT sensor data at the pallet level to scientifically predict the dynamic remaining shelf-life of each pallet of produce based on the harvest conditions and post-harvest handling (such as cut-to-cool time) and calculate the impact of these variables on the freshness of the produce. We can know, with a very high degree of accuracy, what the actual shelf-life of produce is when it is delivered to the retailer. This enables the grocer to better manage their produce because they know how fresh it is.

Ultimately, we believe that the consumers shouldn’t have to worry about whether the produce they buy is fresh enough for them to consume before it spoils. They should expect and trust that their grocer is managing this process and providing them with fresh produce that will last and provide complete customer satisfaction.

On June 27, Food Navigator published an article stating that the Grocery Marketing Association and Food Marketing Institute expect that 98 percent of food and beverage products will be using the new labeling by the end of this year and 100 percent compliance by January of next year.”