Federal regulators should continue their current push for more consistent labeling to help consumers identify when food should no longer be kept for consumption.
Those efforts by the federal government actually should be stepped up, considering the confusion that exists regarding current labeling messages such as “sell by,” “best by” and “fresh through.”
In addition, the food industry should become a more willing, enthusiastic partner in trying to make “advice” labeling easier to understand across the board. It would seem to be in the industry’s — as well as consumers’ — best interests, even though making revisions to current labels or stamping on containers will involve some cost.
Finally, there’s another important reason why clear messaging on packaging and containers should be sought by everyone: Confusion results in too much food being discarded — wasted — unnecessarily, and consumers are losers financially because of that.
Consumers have a right to clear information upon which they can depend, assuming, of course, that they exercise common sense in regard to their food.
For example, they shouldn’t keep certain items out of their refrigerator for long periods of time — items that obviously need to be kept refrigerated — and expect those items to retain their freshness for as long as the carton or package indicates.
Plus, the point needs to be made that those dates included on packages, wrappers and containers are merely meant to be a reliable guide.
However, with the different messages currently provided, it is easy to see why confusion exists, such as:
n How is a consumer to know how long an item is to be considered fresh if he or she buys it near or on the “sell by” date?
n If an item is “best by” a certain date, how can a consumer be sure when “best” reverts to some category less acceptable?
n Although a consumer can be confident that a product is “fresh through” a certain date, how long beyond that date does the food producer consider the product acceptable for consumption?
Again, people have a responsibility to handle and store their foods safely and responsibly, and adhere to recommendations, but the food industry should be brainstorming options for making decisions about consumption easier and more reliable than what the current information enables.
Obviously, if an item looks spoiled and/or has an unusual odor or other telltale sign that it should be discarded, then the decision should be obvious.
The best advice is to always be cautious, but avoid throwing away something when there is no evidence that it should be discarded.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is recommending that companies stick with “best if used by,” which the agency feels doesn’t have the safety implications of “use by.”
Meanwhile, remember that variables exist, one of them being how long foods sit on loading docks. Whether expiration-date changes are coming in response to the federal effort currently underway remains uncertain. The only things certain now are that the FDA’s recommendation is not mandatory and some states impose certain rules of their own, such as the use of a “sell by” date or other labeling.
The FDA is right in promoting such discussion, and consumers need to realize that the issue is more complex than many people might consider it to be.