Clearing up food date label confusion

The Consumer Goods Forum and Champions 12.3 are calling for companies worldwide to simplify food date labels by 2020 in an effort to reduce food waste

What does “best before” really mean? And how does that differ from “sell by,” “packaged on,” “use by,” or even “expiry date”? The various date-related phrases used on food and beverage product labels can have different meanings, and the lack of clarity often results in confused consumers who end up throwing out perfectly fine food.

Date label confusion may, in fact, be leading consumers to throw out up to $29 billion worth of still-edible food annually in the U.S. alone, according to the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of 400 major consumer goods companies across 70 countries. With approximately 1.3 billion tons of food being lost or wasted globally each year, food waste is becoming an increasingly worrisome sustainability issue around the world.

That’s why the CGF, in conjunction with Champions 12.3 (a coalition dedicated to achieving Target 12.3 of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to "halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains" by 2030), has issued an official “Call to Action” to standardize food date labels worldwide by 2020.

The CGF Board of Directors — which includes representatives from such prominent retailers and manufacturers as Walmart, Tesco, IGA, Marks & Spencer, Danone, Kellogg, Campbell Soup, Nestlé, McCain Foods and Unilever — unanimously adopted this Call to Action. It urges retailers and food producers to take these three steps to simplify date labels and reduce food waste:

  1. Use only one date label at a time.

  2. Choose from two possible labels: one expiration date for perishable items (e.g. "use by") and one food quality indicator for non-perishable items (e.g. "best if used by"), with the exact wording tailored to specific geographic areas based on regional context.

  3. Implement consumer education programs to help people better understand what date labels mean.

On the consumer education front, the CGF and Champions 12.3 are recommending that businesses partner with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to teach consumers how to interpret date labels. Education efforts could include in-store displays, online material and public service announcements.

"Now more than ever is the time for business to play a leading role in tackling food waste. This is an issue that can only truly be tackled by collaboration across the value chain," explained Peter Freedman, managing director of The Consumer Goods Forum, in a media release. “Through our global membership, the CGF is committed to playing a leadership role. We believe simplified and consistent date labelling will help us get one step closer to meeting our resolution to halve food waste while also helping reduce confusion for consumers.”

Read more about the CGF’s Call to Action 

For an update on efforts to achieve Target 12.3, read the “SDG Target 12.3 on Food Loss and Waste: 2017 Progress Report” 

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