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The Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to the food industry today urging companies to reduce the confusion over date labels on packaged food. Instead of competing phrases such as sell by or use before, the FDA is backing an initiative to adopt one uniform standard. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the FDA's action is part of an effort to reduce food waste.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's estimated that we toss out about a third of our food in the U.S. That's about $160 billion worth of wasted food each year. Here's FDA deputy commissioner Frank Yiannas.
FRANK YIANNAS: Just imagine walking into your favorite grocery store, buying three bags of grocery and, as you walk out, you throw one of those bags in the garbage can. Sounds ridiculous, but in essence, that's what's happening every day across the country.
AUBREY: He says one reason people waste so much food is the confusion over date labels. There are lots of terms out there. People see the phrases use before or sell by and assume they should toss food out after that date.
YIANNAS: So it's very confusing for consumers.
AUBREY: To clear up that confusion, the FDA is urging food companies to adopt the same language. So what you should expect to see more of in the future is this phrase - best if used by. Here's what it means.
YIANNAS: If a product reaches that date, it exceeds that date, it doesn't mean that the product is no longer good or that it's unsafe. It simply means that it's not at optimal quality.
AUBREY: In other words, the food could be stale or past its peak freshness. Major players in the food industry are also behind this effort to streamline date labels. Here's Meghan Stasz of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
MEGHAN STASZ: We absolutely support the message the FDA is sending out today.
AUBREY: Her organization along with the Food Marketing Institute introduced a voluntary initiative to streamline date labels on packaged foods back in 2017. Leading up to this, they tested various phrases with consumers, and they found exactly what the FDA has found about which term works best.
STASZ: Best if used by was a clear winner.
AUBREY: So two years ago, the companies that belong to the Grocery Manufacturers Association began to adopt this phrase. And Stasz says a recent survey finds more than 80% of the products in the portfolios of the member companies already carry the label.
STASZ: We've seen really great progress towards adoption nationwide.
AUBREY: She says the industry also supports the use of one additional date label phrase for some foods that run a higher risk of spoilage. This is the phrase use by, which she says you may continue to see.
STASZ: So use by is a - basically a discard date. So we would recommend that after the date on the package, the consumer discard that product.
AUBREY: The FDA requires infant formulas to be labeled with a use by date. Otherwise the FDA's Frank Yiannas says there are no federal requirements to use date labels on food packages.
YIANNAS: While we do not have a regulatory mandate, we do have a responsibility to play a role in trying to reduce food waste at home. And so that's why FDA is taking this measure.
AUBREY: The federal goal is to cut food waste in half by the year 2030. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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