PhotoAs part of its effort to reduce food waste, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is encouraging companies to back an initiative to standardize the use of the term “best if used by” on food labels.

Frank Yiannas, a deputy commissioner at the FDA, wrote in a letter to the food industry on Thursday that consumer uncertainty over dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods contribute to a large amount of food waste.

"Consumer research has shown that this phrasing helps consumers understand that the date label is about quality, not safety, and that products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly," Yiannas said.

Less confusing terminology

The use of phrases such as “sell by,” “use before,” or “expires by” account for about 20 percent of food waste per household, Yiannas noted. Conversely, research has shown that using the term “best if used by” on shelf-stable, packaged foods conveys that the product in question doesn’t have to be tossed after the date if stored properly.

The FDA’s push to move away from confusing terminology on food labels comes at a time when U.S. consumers are throwing out about a third of their food, or approximately 133 billion pounds each year.

"Imagine going to the grocery store and buying three bags of groceries, and as you walk out, you throw one of those bags in the garbage can," Yiannas told NPR. "It sounds ridiculous, but in essence that's what's happening every day."

Reducing food waste

In addition to urging leaders in the food industry to standardize the use of new date labels, the FDA says it’s involved in other efforts to drive down food waste across the country.

The agency says it “supports ongoing consumer education efforts by industry, government, and non-government organizations to educate consumers on what quality-based date labels mean and how to use them to further reduce food waste in the home.”

To avoid wasting food, the FDA recommends:  

  • Refrigerating peeled or cut vegetables for freshness, quality, and safety.

  • Using the freezer. “It’s a great way to store many foods to retain their quality until you are ready to eat them,” the FDA says.

  • Avoiding bulk and impulse purchases, especially of produce and dairy products that have a limited shelf life.

  • Requesting small portions at restaurants. “If you’re not terribly hungry, request smaller portions. Bring your leftovers home, and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours.”

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