New labeling guidance from the USDA that is designed to decrease waste by resolving consumer confusion about “best by” and “sell by” dates on food may also boost in-home food safety practices by providing more specific information.

Although infant formula is the only food product that must carry product dating under current federal law, many food companies include such information on packaging of other products. A lack of uniformity in the date coding on food, though, leaves many wondering how long food can safely be stored, according to a news release from USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

woman checks date on meat in fridge“Food manufacturers frequently use a variety of phrases, such as ‘Sell-by’ and ‘Use-by’ on product labels to describe quality dates on a voluntary basis. The use of different phrases to describe quality dates has caused consumer confusion and has led to the disposal of food that is otherwise wholesome and safe because it is past the date printed on the package,” according to the FSIS.

“FSIS is changing its guidance to recommend the use of ‘Best if Used By’ because research shows that this phrase is easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality.”

The USDA estimates that 30 percent of food is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer level. The new guidance suggesting use of the “Best if Used By” language builds on other recent changes FSIS has made to facilitate food donation and reduce food waste.

Since 2009, USDA has launched new and ongoing initiatives to reduce food waste. In 2013, USDA the Environmental Protection Agency launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, creating a platform for leaders and organizations across the food chain to share best practices on ways to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste.

In 2015, USDA and EPA set the first-ever national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030 to reduce the amount of wasted food in landfills.

“In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy,” Al Almanza, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety said in the news release. “This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.”

The government is accepting comments on the revised labeling guidance from USDA for 60 days.

Comments on this revised guidance may be submitted through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at or by mail to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, FSIS, Docket Clerk, Patriots Plaza III, 355 E St. S.W., 8-163A, Mailstop 3782, Washington, DC 20250-3700. All comments submitted must include docket number FSIS-2016-0044.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)