How Labs Can Efficiently Respond to New Food Date Labeling Guidelines

One Quality

Two major food industry groups have issued voluntary guidelines that aim to simplify food date labeling. Image Credit: Flickr user

What food date labels does your company use on the packaging of its products? Right now, there are more than ten commonly used phrases,1 ranging from “sell by” to “freeze by” to “fresh until” to “expires on.” Meanwhile, some food and beverage items are not marked at all. This often leaves consumers confused, and it leads to billions of pounds of food waste.2 To combat these problems, two grocery industry trade groups are calling for the large number of possible food labels to be narrowed down to just two options: “best if used by” and “use by.”

Although these guidelines, which have been issued by the Grocery  Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, are voluntary, they have the support of several major food retailers, including Walmart, Dean Foods and Wakern Food, as well as the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.3 They want food companies to start making changes immediately, with the goal of having them widely implemented by the summer of 2018.4

There are lots of reasons why complying with these voluntary guidelines is a good idea for food companies. For instance, it will likely build brand loyalty, since it will make customers’ lives easier when they choose products at the grocery store, and it will save them money that they might otherwise waste by throwing away perfectly good food. Plus, they will perceive the company as more environmentally friendly by taking part in the effort to reduce food waste. However, in the short-term, rewriting labels for food products that are already on the market presents a significant challenge. As food manufacturing companies start implementing these new and stricter guidelines, modern software can help speed up the testing process and ensure the accuracy of the new food date labels.

Using the “Use By” Date Designation

The Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Organization have clearly delineated when the two food date label terms should be used. The “use by” date is for perishable goods, like those containing meat or dairy products, which are unsafe to consume if they remain on the shelf of a grocery store or inside a customer’s refrigerator for too long.5 Food and beverage companies need to test all of the products they sell, especially packaged meal options that contain multiple types of food, to determine whether they fall into this category. That way, they can be sure to provide customers with accurate expiration information.

Currently, many perishable items are currently labeled with a “sell by” date, which legally protects the company from consumer backlash if a food goes bad, because they have not actually given a concrete safety deadline. But when printing a “use by” date, companies must be sure that the product will remain safe for customers to consume until that date, which will require more precise testing. Modern software that improves lab efficiency can assist with the testing process by integrating lab activities, which makes it easier to avoid manual errors and cuts down on duplicated tests for similar foods.

Switching to the “Best If Used By” Date Label Option

For nonperishable goods that have a long shelf life, the two trade groups recommend that food and beverage companies mark their products with the “best if used by” date label. Many non-refrigerated snack foods, like chips, granola bars and crackers, fall into this category. These foods are still safe to eat after the date listed on the package, but they may not have quite as fresh a taste or texture. Again, lab integration technology can help improve the efficiency of the testing process as food and beverage companies run tests to determine where to draw the line indicating freshness. Even though it may not have a significant effect on customer safety, having an accurate “best if used by date” can help protect the reputation of the brand in the eyes of customers, because they will know whether or not to expect a top quality product after it has been in their cupboard for a certain period of time.

Whether your company sells mostly perishable goods, non-perishable products or a mixture of the two, the new guidelines pose a challenge when it comes to implementation for food products that are already on grocery store shelves. But the long-term rewards—increased customer satisfaction and simplifying labeling decisions for new products—make them worth adopting from a business perspective. Thanks to today’s lab technology, food manufacturers can expect to easily meet the summer 2018 implementation recommendation without investing an inordinate amount of time or money.

BIOVIA Perfect Lab is an advanced software solution that integrates all lab personnel, processes, equipment and data. As a result, it can help labs at food companies improve efficiency no matter what task they are faced with. Contact us today to learn more about how this and our other offerings can help your company get an edge in today’s competitive food and beverage market.

  1. “Trade groups push to expire confusing food date labels,” February 16, 2017,  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/trade-groups-reduce-expiration-labels-food-waste/
  2. “The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash,” September 2013, https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/dating-game-IB.pdf
  3. “Use by? Sell by? New food labels aim to make it easier to know,” February 17, 2017, http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2017/02/17/grocers-want-you-stop-throwing-away-food-too-soon/98037974/
  4. “New date label wording to cut food waste,” February 16, 2017, http://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/news_home/Business_News/2017/02/New_date_label_wording_to_cut.aspx?ID=%7B78D5267F-9175-4DE3-B8A0-C3A4C7BEB67E%7D
  5. “New Guidelines Seek to Provide Clarity On Food Expiration Dates,” February 17, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/02/17/515841132/new-guidelines-seek-to-provide-clarity-on-food-expiration-dates