Why CPG Leaders Want to Standardize ‘Use By’ Labels

Every year, $940 billion worth of food is wasted globally – but some of food’s biggest players think that number can be greatly reduced if they can agree on a two word phrase.

That’s the current goal of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a global industry network made up of 400 retailers, manufacturers and service providers, including Walmart, the Kellogg Company and Campbell Soup Company. The group announced recently that it’s looking to trash current expiration date labels to help reduce food waste not only within the U.S. but around the world. Why? Because consumers throw away billions in food simply because they’re confused about the unstandardized language used to convey the shelf life of a product.

CGF’s new initiative aims to homogenize date coding on” labels by committing to a new standardized system that will stop the intermittent use of “sell by,” “use by,” “display until,” and “best before.” Instead the group proposes that brands switch to “use by” or “best if used by” dates exclusively within the next two years. Now agreed upon by all members of the CGF, the standardized labels will initially roll out in the U.S., the U.K. and Japan.

“By standardising food labels, [CGF] and its members believe we can make things much clearer, demonstrating clearly when a product is no longer fit for consumption,” Ignacio Gavilan, director of environmental sustainability at CGF, told NOSH. “In some countries, it’s not always clear whether the date marked on a product relates to safety or quality, meaning that food can be thrown out when it’s perfectly suitable for consumption. That’s why we’re calling for uniformity across the world – and our members, including food giants like Mars, Unilever, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Nestlé, are fully supportive.”

The announcement builds on existing efforts launched earlier this year by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. It also supports the U.S.’s 2015 commitment to reduce food loss and waste by half by the year 2030, and follows a recommendation from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to use the term “best if used by” in their date coding.

Kris Charles, Kellogg Company spokesperson, told NOSH the global food brand is backing the initiative because it aligns with the company’s commitment to addressing “the critical issues of climate and food security.”

“Label confusion has an enormous cost in food insecurity, environmental degradation, increased GHG, and an enormous cost to consumers’ pocket books. An estimated $29 billion (USD) in unnecessary food waste occurs at the consumer level, costing each person about $90 annually,” Charles said. “By simplifying and harmonizing food date labels in markets around the globe, we will help end consumer confusion about the safety and quality of their food, and make a significant contribution to reducing food waste.”

The date label shift also aligns with another consumer trend: transparency. By better reflecting a product’s true shelf life, Katherine Neebe, director of sustainability for Walmart, noted consumers will have more accurate insight into their food’s safety.

Though the impact of the new labeling has the potential to be momentous for food security, Gavilan said the shift won’t be without its challenges. Brands may have to work with local officials to ascertain how to meet local labeling regulations while still using the new suggested date coding.

Gavilan noted that some brands have expressed concern that the new codes might open the door to “liability issues.” However, the FDA does not currently have standardized date coding rules, except for infant formula and food, and as such, liability laws will remain the same. He added that he expects that, in some places, uniformity in labelling may improve food safety since statements of quality will be more clearly expressed.

While brands will notice some changes, the real test will be for retailers who may need to train both staff on how to interpret dates and how to best explain the new labels to consumers when asked.

“Language should be as simple as possible. The food industry should be aiming for total transparency, minimising the risk of consumers becoming confused,” he said.