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"WeListen" Blog

It's Summer 2019: Have You Updated Your Label Date Codes?

Did you know that food product dating is not required, except for on infant formula?

Father feeding his baby.

Most food manufacturers do include product dating on their food packaging labels as a source of information to consumers, but they don’t have to. The American consumer is used to choosing the freshest products, such as the cartons of milk with the latest date stamped on the label. They are also used to tossing out food that has gone beyond the date stamped on the package. 

In the past, food manufacturers have used different wording variations to indicate when food is at its best, and this has caused some confusion among consumers. Many people consider the date on the label to be a hard and fast expiration date, when that is often not the case. The dates on food packages indicate when a product’s quality is at its highest, not when it will spoil.

The Problem with Label Dates

The idea that dates stamped onto food packaging represent a point of no return has become embedded in the consumer mindset, and this leads to a lot of perfectly good food being wasted every year. The FDA estimates that 20% of all consumer food waste is based on confusion over the dates on packaging. That represents 26.6 billion pounds of the 133 billion pounds of food wasted annually, which translates to over $30 billion worth of food thrown out solely because of the importance consumers ascribe to date labeling. 

New Language Recommended by the FDA, USDA, and EPA

Woman shopping in a grocery store.

In April, the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA jointly recommended changes to date code labeling guidelines for all food sold in the U.S. (except for baby formula, which by law must be date stamped so parents can be sure it is nutritionally sound). Together, these agencies recommended that food manufacturers use "Best If Used By" as the language next to the dates stamped on their products.

Many food manufacturers already use this language, but many also use “Sell By,” “Use By,” and “Freeze By.” Research has shown that the new recommended language indicates to consumers that the product will be of the best quality if used by the date shown, and that it should be fine to eat if it does not exhibit signs of spoilage.

Why the Recommended Language Is Better

The government agencies behind the change in language hope that the new wording will indicate to consumers that products are often perfectly fine to consume, even if they have passed the indicated date, as long as they don’t show signs of having gone bad. As a result, the hope is that far less good food will be discarded, reducing waste of both food and food packaging (because “expired” food is often thrown out in its packaging, rather than consumers separating the food before recycling the packaging). 

If consumers educate themselves about ways to determine for themselves whether food has gone bad, the theory is that they’re less likely to throw away good food simply because of the date on the calendar. Have you updated the language on your food packaging labels to reflect the new wording? PKG Brand Design is always on the forefront of new CPG branding and packaging initiatives; please subscribe to our blog for the latest package design industry news!


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