Should Food Product Date Labeling Promote Consumer Safety or Curb Food Waste?

business_ethics_highlights_2Food product date labeling that is intelligible to consumers emerged in the United States in the 1970s amidst concerns about food safety and freshness. That history is important because food safety and freshness continues to be the lens through which consumers interpret any date printed on food packaging, whether or not its significance is safety- or freshness-related. One of the fallouts of this is that date labels whose significance is mainly commercial (e.g., “sell by”) encourage consumers to throw away and waste food that is edible and poses no inherent safety risk.

In an attempt to curb food waste, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued regulatory guidance encouraging the use of a single date label – “best if used by” – in place of “sell by,” “use by,” “use before,” “best before,” and other phrases currently in use on food packaging. FSIS claims that the current array of labels is less clear to consumers and thus treated as de facto “unsafe after” dates, leading to food waste, whereas consumers tend to interpret correctly the meaning of “best if used by” and are less likely to throw away safe food.

The linked story (which includes a link to FSIS’s guidance document) could be used in the classroom as a jumping off point to discuss the values underlying regulatory and quasi-regulatory initiatives. Questions that could be discussed include: (1) If consumers have evolved a practice of treating printed dates as “unsafe after” dates, should the food industry instead be encouraged to print dates that more closely correspond to that evolved expectation? (2) Should the FSIS, whose name suggests consumer safety as its mission, be the vehicle for achieving environmental sustainability-focused ends? (3) Consumer-intelligible sell-by dating replaced a prior system of symbols or numbers whose significance was understood only by the retailer. It was replaced by consumer-intelligible date labels in the name of increased consumer transparency. How should conflicts between demands for consumer transparency and the policy objective of reducing food waste be adjudicated? >>>

LINK: USDA Asks Meat, Dairy Companies To Replace Confusing Expiration & Sell-By Labels With “Best If Used By” Date (by Chris Morran for Consumerist)

“Research shows that this phrase conveys to consumers that the product will be of best quality if used by the calendar date shown,” explains the guidance [issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service]. “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best if Used By’ date.”

Other date-related phrases are not as clear to retailers or consumers, notes the FSIS. “Sell By” says nothing of food safety or quality; it’s merely an indicator of how long the manufacturer thinks a store should keep an item available for sale. Then there’s “Use By,” which is intended to imply that this is the last date on which a product will be at its peak freshness, but which may be misinterpreted as an indication that a product is not safe after that date.

The ultimate goal, notes the FSIS guidance, is to try to curb food waste. The USDA claims that around 30% of the U.S. food supply is lost or thrown out at the retail and customer level each year.

What do you think?

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