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The USDA Is Fighting Food Waste With Labeling Guidelines

But how much of an impact can it have?

expiration date Shutterstock

A new recommendation from the USDA aims to standardize food labeling while cutting back on food waste and overall confusion over when food actually goes bad. The organization suggests that manufacturers and retailers opt for the phrasing “best if used by,” as opposed to “sell by” or “best before,” which can be vague indicators of food quality, as Time reports.

“In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy,” USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza said in a release. “This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.”

While the FDA requires a "use by" date on infant formula, labeling standards for other products are not uniform, and the process can cause confusion, leading people to dispose of food that may be safe beyond the date marked on the packaging. For example, “sell by” labels serve the retailer, rather than the consumer, by indicating how long a store should to display the product for inventory management, according to the USDA, rather than an estimate of when a product should be consumed.

USDA Public Affairs specialist Veronika Medina further clarifies that the “best if used by date” is used for quality only, not as an indicator of food safety. Though the government agency believes the new guidelines will aid in preventing some food waste it’s unclear how much food will be saved. Medina says, “We don’t have any predictions at this time. The recommendation on the use of a ‘best if used by date’ should help promote consistency for consumers.”

Retailers who apply dates to products sold in their stores will also be adding new language: The FSIS recommends retailers place a “best if used by date” on products produced at and sold at their stores.

Approximately 30 percent of food is wasted between retailers and consumers, the organization estimates, and the hope is that this recommendation will cut into that number. Previous legislative proposals have also attempted to tackle this problem of vagueness to make sure consumers know the food they purchase will be safe for consumption.

U.S. to Food Companies: Your Expiration Date Labels Are Too Confusing [Time]
Sell By? Use By? Best By? Legislation Attempts to Standardize Expiration Dates [E]
Government Urges Eating Some Foods Way, Way Past Their Expiration Dates [E]

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