The Challenge of Date Labeling

One of the food industry’s most vexing challenges is creating a food package date label that everyone understands.

The problem, and potential solutions, are well-documented; here’s a report from 2014 that I co-authored that spells out the issue in detail. In fact, a comprehensive (albet voluntary) model open dating regulation created by the National Conference of Weights & Measures has been available for some 40 years. But adoption of the model law has been slow and spotty and as yet, there is no national labeling law other than one for infant formula.

Food LabelClearly, a universally acceptable date label remains a frustratingly elusive goal, and no wonder. The manufacturer and retailer need a package code that would help them trace a product involved in a food safety recall. The retailer also needs a date code (“Sell By”) to insure proper inventory circulation. Consumers need something different altogether: a date that tells them if the items in their freezer or pantry shelf are still good — and safe — to eat. Balancing these complementary needs has been a difficult condundrum that, among other negative impacts, has resulted in the wasteful loss of tons of perfectly edible and safe food each year — food discarded at the manufacturing plant, the grocery store, the restaurant and cafeteria, and the home kitchen.

Now, efforts are underway once again to tackle the problem. Those efforts appear to coalesce around a handful of potentially realizable goals:

  • A uniform, national regulation requiring all packages sold to consumers to include an open (i.e., “Best if Used By) date;
  • A national regulation requiring packagers to imprint a coded label that shows the date of manufacture and the lot number for use in the event of a recall;
  • A concerted customer-directed public service program to inform the general public what, precisely, “Best if Used By” means. Such a program would include media public service advertising, social media and, perhaps, tags on products that require strict handling and storage methods to avoid contamination;

For these goals to be reached, Congress will need to understand the benefit of uniform open dating. Manufacturers will need to upgrade their packaging and labels to accomplish product uniformity, and end-users (you and me, and our friends and neighbors) will need to be informed about the critical relationship of open dating labels and proper product handling and storage.



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