Although date labeling of food has nearly a century-long U.S. history with considerable developments during different spans of time, the fact that it is an issue has become more visible in the past few years as attention to and concern about food loss and waste have heightened. There is considerable variation in date labeling/marking practices in the U.S. and around the world; this lack of harmonization contributes to misunderstanding in the marketplace and in the home about the meaning of date labeling terminology and appropriate responsive action. These misconceptions lead to use of limited regulatory resources to check dates on labels, financial burden and wasted food. A group of individuals affiliated with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), academia, the food industry, regulatory community, food banking, trade associations and consulting organizations (see “Food Date Labeling Working Group”) came together to produce a document aimed at bringing science-based clarity to this issue to allow for more informed risk-based decision making by various stakeholders. This article summarizes the publication—“Applications and Perceptions of Date Labeling of Food,” by Newsome et al.[1]—that IFT published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.      

Why the Concern?
Food loss and waste is a substantial, global issue. About 33 to 50 percent of food, equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of food valued at about $1 trillion, is lost or wasted per year.[2–5] This has negative impacts on the environment, economic development and our ability to address food security. Earth’s population is projected to increase from 7.2 billion to 10.9 billion by 2100.[6] It has been estimated that the size of the population in 2050 will require a 60 percent increase in global food production by then.[3,7]

Food Date Labeling Working Group

Academia: Theodore P. Labuza, University of Minnesota

Food Industry (manufacturing, retail, trade organization):
    Chris Balestrini, Grocery Manufacturers Association
 Kaarin Goodburn, Chilled Food Association
    Hilary Thesmar, Food Marketing Institute
    Frank Yiannas, Walmart 

Regulatory Community:
    Joseph Corby, Association of Food and Drug Officials

Food Banking: Mitzi Baum, Feeding America

Consulting: Gale Prince, SAGE Food Safety LLC

Institute of Food Technologists:
    William Fisher
    Rosetta Newsome

Approximately 805 million people experience hunger, and 1 billion more have hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiencies).[8,9] Malnutrition is the largest contributor to disease, and costs the economy up to 5 percent of global income.[7,8,10] Thus, the significance of food loss and waste is understandably concerning (see “Definitions of Food Loss and Waste”[11]).  

Food loss and waste occur throughout the farm-to-table food system, but contributing factors vary around the world due to different situations and conditions in different countries, regions and locales. In developing countries, for example, the losses and waste stem more from managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage, transportation, processing, cooling capabilities, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. In medium- and high-income countries, loss and waste relate more to food quality standards and consumer behavior.[2] The visibility of the issue of food loss and waste has been heightened since about 2008. The UK-based organization Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP) has issued several reports addressing consumer date labeling misperceptions, food waste behavior and the value of storage and freezing guidance in preventing waste.[12–20] The Institution of Mechanical Engineers issued the report Global Food Waste Not, Want Not.[21] The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) issued a key, frequently cited report—Global Food Losses and Food Waste—[2]that provided a global estimate of food loss and wastage, and last year established the Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Additionally, the United Nations Environment Program, FAO and multiple partners launched the “Think, Eat, Save, Reduce Your Foodprint” Campaign,[22] which targets food wasted by consumers and at retail, and within the hospitality industry. The European Commission announced a commitment to reduce edible food waste 50 percent by 2020, and the Joint Food Wastage Declaration: Every Crumb Counts[23] was established with 18 signatory and 4 supporting organizations across Europe committing to the goal. In the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued reports;[24,25] the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an initiative of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and National Restaurant Association,[26] was established, issuing reports[26,27] and a toolkit;[28] and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency launched a U.S. Food Waste Challenge.[29] Further, the USDA/Economic Research Service published a report[30] that provided estimates of food waste in the United States in 2010. This report indicated that about 133 billion pounds of food, 31 percent of the 430 billion pounds of food produced, equivalent to 1,249 calories per American per day, were unavailable for human consumption at retail and in the home. 

U.S. Date Labeling History
The history of date labeling in the United States is extensive. Dairy products are thought to have been the first to have dates on packages. By the 1960s, the Kroger Co. became an industry leader in date labeling, using sell-by dates on pasteurized milk. In the 1970s, date labeling was implemented in supermarkets in response to consumer requests; a model open-dating regulation for states was developed; legislation that would require open date labeling was introduced;[31,32] the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA and the Federal Trade Commission held joint labeling hearings, and the Office of Technology Assessment conducted an extensive study for a Senate committee.[33] Additional legislative activity occurred in the 1990s and between 2000 and 2009.[25] In subsequent decades, a considerable amount of consumer research was conducted, a study was carried out for FDA[34] and the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF) addressed the topic.[35,36]     

Inconsistency of Date Labeling Terminology and Applications
Regulatory frameworks for date labeling vary considerably around the world. At the U.S. federal level, infant formula and some types of baby food are required to be labeled with a use-by date, to ensure nutrient content and proper consistency {21 U.S.C. 350a (2010) and 21 C.F.R. 107.20 [2013 (c)]}. Additionally, thermally processed low-acid foods packaged in hermetically sealed containers must be marked with a code identifying the packing establishment and year, day and period during which it was packed [21 C.F.R. 113.60(c)]. Condensed or dry milk products must also carry a code or lot number identifying the contents and quantity in the container, and the specific date, run or batch of the product.[37] Dressed poultry (ready-to-cook whole bird) must be marked on the immediate container with either a lot number indicating the day of the year on which the poultry was slaughtered, or a coded number [9 C.F.R. 381.126(b)]. Eggs packed under USDA’s grading program and in cartons with the USDA grade shield must display the pack date in a three-digit code.[38] For retail and foodservice facilities, the Food Code[39] contains guidance that states and local jurisdictions may adopt for active managerial control of product within the food facility.

At the state level, there are two options through the voluntary Uniform Open Dating Regulation of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).[40] One option prescribes mandatory, uniform date labeling of prepackaged perishable foods, and the other recommends voluntary uniform date labeling that must be used when a packager opts to use date labeling on prepackaged nonperishable foods. The Open Dating Regulation, which was established in 1985 by the National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) in concert with the Association of Food and Drug Officials, describes how to determine and express the sell-by or best-if-used-by date. NIST[40] reported that 18 states and the Virgin Islands had a state law or regulation for open date labeling, 10 of which had a law or regulation that is not based on the NCWM standard. A Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic report indicated that 41 states and the District of Columbia require date labels on at least some foods, with variation in the kinds of food required to have date labeling and the type of terminology required. Further, there is potential for regulation of date labeling at the local level.[25]  

Outside the United States, the use of date labeling differs among countries. Most developed countries require open date labeling of most food products.[34,41] In the European Union, with some exceptions, a date of minimum durability or a use-by date is required for foods;[42] foods that are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view must carry a use-by date after which the “food shall be deemed unsafe.”[42]

Definitions of Food Loss and Waste[11]

Food loss: “the decrease in quantity or quality of food,” “the agricultural or fisheries products intended for human consumption that are ultimately not eaten by people or that have incurred a reduction in quality reflected in their nutritional value, economic value or food safety.”  

Food waste: “an important part of food loss” “which refers to the discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that was fit for human consumption—by choice or after the food has been left to spoil or expire as a result of negligence.”

Food Quality vs. Safety
In a section of our article in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety[1] on the topic of quality vs. safety, we mention that a number of factors influence the perishability, quality and safety of a food, and the determination of a date mark. The NACMCF addressed considerations for establishing safety-based, consume-by date labels (SBDL) for refrigerated ready-to-eat (RTE) foods and the data needed to validate and verify the adequacy of SBDL; in doing so, it conducted a Hazard Analysis of refrigerated RTE foods. The committee determined that Listeria monocytogenes is the appropriate target microorganism for SBDL of most refrigerated RTE foods that support its growth.[36] The committee noted in its report that some companies have historically used microbiological challenge studies, growth modeling or both to establish date labeling for certain products, with storage time and temperature expectations developed to ensure consumer safety and product quality throughout the product’s shelf life.[36] The committee reported that use at the consumer and food handler level of an appropriate SBDL (e.g., “use within X days” of opening/purchase) on products supporting rapid growth of the pathogen would have a public health benefit, if combined with effective consumer education on temperature control. Further, however, the committee reported that use of a specific food safety objective-based SBDL at the manufacturer level and on a large scale has many practical limitations, given the number, diversity and complexity of products in the marketplace and lack of accurate information on initial levels and growth rates of L. monocytogenes for many formulations.[36]   

Pertinent guidance documents are available from the Chilled Food Association (CFA) and Codex. The CFA has available “Best Practice Guidelines for the Production of Chilled Food,”[43] which address shelf-life determination, monitoring and verification, and provides specific technical limits on shelf life in relation to the thermal process used and target microorganism (L. monocytogenes or Clostridium botulinum). The guidelines call for determining maximum shelf life on the basis of the shorter length of time for microbiological safety and stability, physical condition or organoleptic quality. The CFA’s Shelf life of Ready to Eat Food in Relation to L. monocytogenes—Guidance for Food Business Operators—[44] produced to help address EC regulation No. 2073/2005 and related guidance on microbiological criteria for food, requires evidence based on shelf-life studies and relevant data in the scientific literature.  

The Codex Guidelines on the Application of General Principles of Food Hygiene to the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat Foods[45] indicates the need to control and monitor the storage time-temperature combination, and that length of shelf life should be based on appropriate studies that assess the growth of L. monocytogenes in the food and take into account the potential for temperature abuse. The guidelines also indicate that countries should consider labeling certain RTE foods and, as appropriate, labels should include information on safe handling practices and/or advice on the time frame in which a product should be consumed. The Codex Code of Hygienic Practice for Refrigerated Packaged Foods with Extended Shelf Life indicates that it is very important to establish product shelf life, using scientific data and technological methods, and to take into account the scheduled heat or other preservation treatments, use of hurdles and anticipated distribution and storage temperatures.[46] Shelf life is defined in the code as “the period during which the product maintains its microbiological safety and sensory qualities at a specific storage temperature.” 
Consumer Perception
Numerous studies of consumer perception and behavior relating to date labeling of food have been conducted. There is considerable evidence that consumers misunderstand the meaning of dates on labels, such as whether they relate to food safety or quality, for example, and that this in turn influences food discard behavior and waste.[14,15,47,48] For example, FMI’s 2011 Trends Survey[47] found that 13 percent of participants reported believing that eating food past its sell-by date is a serious health risk, 10 percent reported believing that eating food past its best-by date is a serious health risk and 25 percent of people reported always discarding food when it is past its sell-by date as a means to address food safety. WRAP[14] also found that consumers confuse dates intended for retailers versus those intended for consumers. A review by Evans and Redmond[49] of published data pertaining to consumer food safety behaviors associated with increased risk of listeriosis found that, overall, consumer understanding of use-by dates is lacking, and more specifically, that 71 percent of consumers misunderstood “use-by” and “best-before” terminology.  

Date Labeling Challenges
We addressed a number of challenges surrounding date labeling misunderstanding and misconceptions. Challenges include limited space on containers for date labeling and limitation on the print field for inkjet coding heads, and field limitations within barcoding applied to cases or pallets. Food banks sometimes have difficulty determining whether to accept products that are “close to code” (approaching their best-if-used-by, sell-by or consume-by dates) and whether they would be able to distribute them quickly enough. Additionally, food bank end-users are sometimes concerned about the wholesomeness of the products. Additionally, managing stock at wholesale and retail (e.g., checking dates and rerotating products) can have a significant cost to an organization, and consumer misunderstanding of best-by dates and the “shopper sorting dilemma” place an additional burden on managing stock.[50,51] Further, lack of uniformity in the size, font and package location of the date label also adds to the time involved in checking date labels.[51] With limited public health resources, regulators have difficulty maintaining the same level of scrutiny in checking dates at retail as in the past, which fosters a need for the regulator to focus on risk at retail rather than checking expiration dates. With regard to regulatory enforcement of out-of-date foods, there may be, in some situations, fines or criminal punishment for noncompliance, although many products that exceed their use-by date are not an immediate health risk.[51–53] Labuza and Szybist[52] described the legal implications in the United States of the presence or absence of an open date on a food package, and the challenge of determining the basis on which to set a date. They noted that a food that is not held at proper temperature distribution conditions to meet the legality of the date (e.g., temperature abuse, allowing pathogen growth to a hazardous level) is potentially adulterated. 

Advantages of Technological Innovations
Many intelligent/smart packaging developments, such as time-temperature indicators (TTIs), offer benefits for supply chain stakeholders. Verghese and others[54] reported that intelligent packaging can provide supply chain stakeholders with real-time data feedback on quality, safety, shelf life and logistics efficiency, and reduce waste by enhancing ability to sell products before date labels expire. TTIs that are based on the time to detect (TTD) a pathogen of concern could allow food distribution on the basis of the “least-shelf-life-left first-out” concept rather than “first-in first-out.”[55] TTI devices could also predict at what point one colony-forming unit of a pathogen/25-g sample is detectable, and estimate growth under abusive temperatures.[56] Studying the estimation of the TTD for L. monocytogenes on frankfurters at levels below detection and modeling the TTD at three temperatures to deduce a safety-based shelf-life equation, Pal and others[57] indicated that a TTI device that matches their model could show a point at which a product becomes unacceptable based on its time-temperature history. They said this could be a valuable tool for risk-based management of listeriosis. TTIs have limitations, however, such as cost, validation-related barriers and manufacturer concerns. 

Call to Action
With the current date labeling situation, we concluded that “collaboration to develop a simple workable solution to address the challenges faced by food manufacturers, retailers, government officials, consumers and other stakeholders would have significant benefit.” And we presented the following four-part call to action:

1)    The food industry should align to establish date labeling uniformity: Develop a more consistent or single best practices system that takes into consideration on-package storage instructions.

2)    Regulatory agencies should reexamine regulatory enforcement: Revisit the emphasis placed on food date labeling at retail, and where appropriate, shift excessive resources placed on food quality date labeling to more significant health and safety risks.

3)    Educate consumers: Providing clear, simple consumer direction on food quality and safety and the meaning of date labeling would improve food waste behavior.

4)    Conduct more research on indicator technologies: Additional research to evaluate and further develop indicator technologies, such as time-temperature monitoring devices, and implementation of other improvements along the supply chain to monitor temperature, handling and storage information could help better gauge true shelf life and reduce food waste, especially for fresh produce.

Since the publication of our paper, we have been engaging in dialogue in a variety of settings about the date labeling issue. IFT featured date labeling and food waste on our FutureFood 2050 Website[58] via info- and videographics and a series of feature stories on food waste. Will you join the conversations? Input from stakeholders throughout the food system will be valuable in moving toward a viable solution that increases understanding of the meaning of date labeling terminology, alleviates the varied challenges surrounding date labeling and reduces food waste.

Rosetta Newsome, Ph.D., CFS, is director of Science and Policy Initiatives at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), where she is involved in production of scientific reports, public policy and regulatory outreach, and other activities. Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is committed to advancing the science of food. IFT is a nonprofit scientific society, with more than 17,000 members from more than 95 countries. IFT brings together food scientists, technologists and related professionals from academia, government and industry.

6. UN. 2013. World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Working paper No. ESA/P/WP.227. New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.
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11. FAO. 2014. Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
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32. USDA/ERS. 1973. Food Dating: Shoppers’ Reactions and the Impact on Retail Foodstores. Marketing research report No 984. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture/Economic Research Service.  
33. OTA. 1979. Open Shelf-Life Dating of Food. Washington, DC: Office of Technology Assessment. U.S. Government Printing Office.
34. ERG. 2003. Current State of Food Product Open Dates in the U.S. Final. A report prepared for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the Eastern Research Group, Lexington, MA.
38. Author(s): Rosetta Newsome, Ph.D., CFS