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GMA, FMI hail FDA’s support of ‘Best If Used By’ label

Agency agrees date label standard is clearer to consumers

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute applauded the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement to support the “Best If Used By” designation for date labels on packaged foods.

FMI and GMA said yesterday they received a letter from the FDA affirming their efforts to standardize  wording for recommended use dates on groceries to make the labeling easier for consumers to understand. The FDA also announced its backing of the “Best If Used By” phrasing on its website.

“As approximately 80% of the foods in the U.S. are regulated by the FDA, we would like to inform our regulated food industries that FDA strongly supports industry’s voluntary industrywide efforts to use the ‘Best if Used By’ introductory phrase when choosing to include a quality-based date label to indicate when a product will be at its best flavor and quality,” the FDA said in the May 23 letter.

“Industry, government and nonprofit organizations have been working to reduce consumer confusion regarding product date labels,” the agency stated. “Consumer research has found that the ‘Best If Used By’ introductory phrase communicates to consumers the date by which the product will be of optimal quality.”

An industrywide initiative launched in February 2017 aimed to clear up consumer confusion over product expiration dates by streamlining the various types of labels and simplifying their language. GMA and FMI worked with 25 grocery manufacturers and retailers to cut down the number of product date labels and standardize their wording. They cut down more than 10 date-label categories to two: “Best If Used By” and “Use By,” in line with a December 2016 recommendation from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Geoff_Freeman_GMA.png“Today’s FDA announcement supporting standardized use of ‘Best If Used By’ is a win for American consumers and another proof point of the CPG industry’s commitment to providing consumers with the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions,” GMA President and CEO Geoff Freeman (left) said in a statement Thursday.

“Two years ago, GMA and the Food Marketing Institute brought together 25 companies to find a solution to reduce the consumer confusion that resulted in unintended food waste,” he explained. “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. We commend FDA and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas for their leadership on this issue.”

Leslie_Sarasin_FMI.pngLeslie Sarasin (left), president and CEO of FMI, called the “Best If Used By” designation “a moniker of quality.”

“We sincerely appreciate FDA’s recognition of the industry’s dedication to seeking solutions and mitigating consumer confusion in the marketplace regarding how best to navigate the myriad product code date labels on grocery shelves across the country,” Sarasin said in a statement. “The agency’s endorsement signals a best practice in ways industry partners can truly deliver on a promise to provide guidance to our customers that is easier to understand.”

So far, about nine in 10 grocery products have adopted the new date labels. GMA has projected that 98% of products will carry the simpler labeling by the end of this year, and all products will bear the labels by January 2020.

“Best If Used By” signifies that, after the date indicated on the label, the product may not taste or perform as expected but can still be used or consumed, according to GMA. The “Use By” designation, which applies to perishables, means the product should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date.

In a survey of 1,002 U.S. adults in December, GMA found that 88% think the “Best If Used By” and “Use By” definitions are clear. Another 85% said that the use of just those two labels would be helpful. Benefits of simpler labeling cited by consumers included feeling safer about the foods they eat, throwing away less food, saving money by discarding less food and greater confidence in the products they use.

“We expect that, over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this ‘Best if Used By’ terminology,” FDA’s Yiannas commented. “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”

In its letter yesterday, the FDA said it’s still evaluating the “Use By” designation for perishable items.

“While GMA and FMI have recommended the use of the introductory phrase ‘Use By’ to indicate the date by which products should be consumed or discarded for safety reasons, FDA is not addressing the use of a ‘Use By’ product date label for safety reasons at this time,” the agency stated.

Determining when a food product will no longer be OK for consumption is “not an exact science,” according to Kevin Smith, senior adviser for food safety in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He noted that the “Best if Used By” label relates only to product quality.

Date labels generally aren’t mandated for packaged foods, the FDA reported. Manufacturers don’t need to obtain FDA approval of the voluntary quality-based date labels they use or specify how they determine that date, the agency said.

“We look forward to continued discussions with both FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the small universe of food products that require a demarcation for food storage and safety,” Sarasin added. “Through enhanced education and transparent communication, consumer confidence in their grocery stores as advocates for their health will only increase.”

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