Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh Vice President, Food Safety & Technology
Editor’s Note: The March/April 2017 issue of QA included a GMA Off the Shelf article announcing a Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)/Food Marketing Institute (FMI) proposal for a new national initiative to standardize product date labels on foods. (http://bit.ly/2pH3qcP) Following is a counterpoint from United Fresh on the proposal.

It’s hard to oppose an initiative aimed at reducing food waste and addressing consumer confusion, but we, at United Fresh, see a flaw in the approach advocated by GMA and FMI for date labeling that must be addressed before manufacturers, especially of perishable products, embrace the concept. The proposal recommends the use of two terms:

  • “BEST If Used By” describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.
  • “USE By” applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package — and disposed after that date.

UF RESPONSE. What does “have a food safety concern over time” mean? We and several other trade associations representing perishable products (to which the “USE By” term would likely be recommended) have asked for justification of this assertion. Some groups have been dismissive of the concerns, while others truly seem to think that a subset of foods warrant this type of safety warning.

If the “BEST if used by” term conveys that a product is safe to consume after the passage of that date, does it mean that products bearing a “use by” label are unsafe after a certain date? While consumer confusion might be reduced by limiting such communication to two terms, confusion will increase as consumers struggle to understand why food was safe one day, but must be discarded the next day.

There is no scientific basis that supports a suggestion that perishable foods are unsafe over time. Spoiled, mushy, slimy? Perhaps. But unsafe? No. Pathogens are not allowed in ready-to-eat foods, regardless of how perishable they are. Pathogens do not spontaneously appear after a certain date.

What might happen if the initiative around safety-based date labeling moves forward?

  1. Consumer confidence: If someone accidentally or unknowingly consumes a product past its “use by” date, will they panic thinking that they will become ill? On the other hand, would this term imply that consumers can mishandle and abuse products and still consume them because a certain date has not passed?
  2. Conservative “use by” dates: We know some consumers may abuse products. If the direction to consumers is that a product must be discarded after the “use by” date, manufacturers may choose a date that limits the likelihood that the product quality will be affected, even under abuse conditions. This means that a product currently bearing a date four weeks after production may change to a date three weeks after production. The shortened shelf life will result in more food waste, not less, to account for “worst case” scenarios.

While the diversity in terminology around dates causes confusion (http://bit.ly/1TEyv9n), the reasons to apply a date include factors other than quality or safety. Often, the use of a date, regardless of the term that precedes it, is used to help the supply chain manage inventory. The printed date is referenced for stock rotation. Regulations govern terminology in some states, and the initiative acknowledges that manufacturers still need to abide by regulations. In the fresh produce industry, dates may be used so the appropriate weight of an item can be calculated, given loss from dehydration. In no cases are dates used to communicate that a product has become unsafe.

To guide manufacturers on use of each term, a not-for-profit organization focused on food waste is developing a decision tree. The group, ReFED, has reached out to trade associations and other food system stakeholders for feedback. What became clear in the conversations is that the tool attempts to be a Listeria tool. As any food microbiologist or food safety professional knows, it is difficult to develop a three-question tool that can evaluate if a particular food bears a Listeria risk that warrants a safety-based date label. (Look at all the factors FDA and FSIS considered in the 2003 risk assessment). From a food processor’s standpoint, if you truly believe that your finished product is likely to cause listeriosis, you should not be selling the product.

GMA and FMI state that they expect broad industry adoption of the terms by the summer of 2018, and they recognize the need for consumer education. Food companies should never use a label (or any other wording) as an excuse to produce contaminated products, and consumers should not be led to believe that it’s their responsibility to properly dispose of products on a certain date, lest they risk life-threatening illness.

Our industry works hard, day in and day out, to provide fresh, wholesome, safe products that improve health. To suggest otherwise is not based in science and will have unintended consequences that could actually increase food waste. If the objective of the initiative is to inform consumers about how to handle products after the manufacturer-applied date passes and to reduce the unnecessary disposal of products, it seems that an industry-wide effort building on the aforementioned IFT report could be constructive. But as currently presented, we see the effort as misguided and without scientific basis.