New food date labels provide the clarity consumers need, survey says
- In a survey done this month, the Grocery Manufacturers Association found 87% of products now carry "Best If Used By" and "Use By" labels, and consumers find them helpful. The GMA and the Food Marketing Institute launched the campaign last year to help reduce consumer confusion about product date labeling.
- A report on the survey noted 88% of respondents thought the labeling options were clear, and 85% said it would be helpful if manufacturers shifted to using only those two labels. Asked how the date labels would assist them, the top benefits people listed were feeling safer about the foods they eat, believing they would throw less away, saving money by throwing less away and being more confident in the products they use.
- "Our industry is committed to empowering consumers to make informed decisions about the products they bring into their homes," GMA President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a release. "This is a proactive industry that put forward a proactive solution to give American families the confidence and trust they deserve in the goods they buy."
Consumer confusion about date labels has been a persistent problem because food and beverage products might sport the words "sell by," "enjoy by," "fresh until," "display until," "best before" and other wording options — and most of them aren't very clear. According to a 2017 poll from GMA and Food Policy Action, 60% of Americans said they had discussed at home what the date labels on grocery products meant, and 40% said they had disagreements about throwing products away.
Food waste is the other major problem related to date labels. If consumers can't figure out whether a product is still good, most are likely to toss it. GMA found 44% of people throw food away because of label dates, 30% make the decision based on how the item looks, and 24% rely on the sniff test.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste is estimated at 30% to 40% of the food supply, which corresponded to about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. There are other drivers behind food waste, however, such as simply buying too much or buying something and forgetting about it. Fresh produce is particularly prone to the latter problem, with 39% of food waste made up of discarded fruits and vegetables.
If consistent date label use results in fewer food products being thrown out, the result could also be positive for the environment. More food ends up in landfills than any other single material, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since 16% of methane emissions come from landfills, diverting the food waste stream could eventually help reduce greenhouse gases.
The "Best If Used By" and "Use By" labels seem to be making a difference for consumers. The GMA survey found 88% of respondents thought they were clear, and 85% said it would help them if manufacturers only used those two labels. That may be the case before long, since the GMA report said CPG companies anticipate 98% of their products will have the new labels by next year, and 100% adoption will be achieved by January 2020. If the industry is able to achieve that on a voluntary basis, it could help to avoid related federal labeling standards.
Manufacturers have embraced this labeling change because customers now have a standardized scheme to look for and industry can tout the sustainability factor associated with it, according to the GMA report. It might take a while longer for per capita food waste to decline in response, so more consumer education — from GMA, manufacturers and retailers — might help in the meantime.
Social media outreach will likely become more of an educational tool for this initiative. GMA said it was setting a goal for next year of every American household tossing 10 fewer items than the previous year, and would be using the hashtag #10ItemsLess to encourage the conversation.
- Grocery Manufacturers Association BEST IF CLEARLY LABELED
- Grocery Manufacturers Association 87% of Products Are Now Using Two Date Labels, Creating Needed Clarity