When in doubt, throw it out? Smell check? Taste test? Eyeball it? Food date labels have become so confusing that many consumers use their own sensory check to decode food expiration dates.

The food industry noticed. “Use By” dates are becoming uniform, with nine in 10 grocery store products now printing consumer-friendly labels. By 2020, all products will carry a simplified date. The 10 date-label categories will pair down to two – “Best if Used By” and “Use By.”

From Farm to Trash

Critical to food product relabeling is curbing massive amounts of food waste. A study by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing away food before it goes bad because they misinterpret the food label.

“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, NRDC staff scientist. “Phrases like ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”

Over 40 percent of the American food supply doesn’t even make it to a plate. That amounts to $165 billion worth of food that’s thrown away annually. Food waste has become the single largest contributor of solid waste in U.S. landfills. The USDA and EPA set the first national food waste reduction goal in 2015: 50 percent less food waste by 2030.

Industry Move

The product labeling initiative was launched in 2017 by the two largest grocery trade groups – the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. Geoff Freeman, GMA president and CEO, called it a “proactive solution to give American families the confidence and trust they deserve in the goods they buy.”

The standardized labels are not mandatory. They are voluntary.

The USDA Food Inspection and Safety Service made the recommendation in 2016 for food manufacturers to to apply “Best if Used By” to product label. But the industrywide label standardization is not government mandated.

“Virtually every discussion included concerns regarding waste generated as a result of consumer confusion about the various date labels on foods and what they mean,” said Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman. “I am pleased to see the grocery manufacturing and retail industries tackling this issue head on. Not every issue warrants a legislative fix, and I think this industry-led, voluntary approach to standardizing date labels is a prime example.”

Dozens of consumer packaged goods brands and retail companies voted unanimously to change expiration dates exclusively to “Use By” by January 2020. Major brands like Walmart, Campbell, Kellogg and Nestle all spearheaded the change.

The 2020 date was set to give companies time to change dates on their packaging. It also coincides with the release of the new FDA nutrition facts panel.

Simplified Labels

The old labels – which included options like “Sell By” and “Display Until” – left consumers in a guessing game. Most products don’t include an explanation of the date, like whether it’s a descriptive feature for the store or the consumer. Even grocery store workers were confused. Employees were polled and reported they, too, cannot distinguish dates on food labels.

The new labels mean:

  • “Best If Used By” – quality designation. This is the date the food manufacturer thinks the product should be consumed for peak flavor.
  • “Use By” – safety designation. Perishable food is no longer food after this date.

Legal Change on Horizon

Is a government mandate likely?

Currently, the only product federally regulated for expiration dates is infant formula. There is no legal definition for food expiration dates in most states. And state food labeling standards vary widely – 20 states restrict stores from selling products after the expiration date, while 30 states don’t enforce such a rule.

The Food Date Labeling Act was introduced to Congress in 2016, but no further action has happened. The act would legally require food date standardization, and require the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services to educate consumers on date label meanings.

Interesting, the proposal also questions the subjective nature of expiration dates. It states no one could “prohibit the sale, donation or use of a product after the quality date for the product has passed.”

Blending ancestral kitchen traditions and new scientific research will allow fermentation to change our diet — and our planet.

In a TEDx Talk, Mara King, co-founder of fermented food store Ozukè, shares why she is proudly releasing trillions of good bacteria into the population. Her food philosophy rubs against everything the Food and Drug Administration and state health departments practice. While government agencies enforce strict sanitation standards in the name of protecting American’s food, King preaches that it’s wiping out good bacteria and dumping more toxins into the environment.

When King and co-founder Willow King (no relation) opened their Colorado-based food business, a food scientist from the Denver office of the Health & Human Services Department performed a safety inspection. The food expert was confused by Ozukè’s live, fermented pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. King: “He said ‘Your product is so weird. We follow all these FDA guidelines in food manufacturing in order to diminish bacteria and here you are making it on purpose.’”

“The food we make is actually super, super, super safe, unlike mots processed packaged fresh foods,” King says. “The reason this food is so safe is not because I’m better at this antimicrobial Macarena than anybody else. It’s because the bacteria are doing the work of making the fermented foods pretty much bomb proof.”

Though numerous cultures have been fermenting for generations (“It’s how humans have been eating raw, crunchy vegetables all through hard winters.”), King notes it’s only in the last 10 years that scientists have been able to map the complex fermentation process. By letting bacteria thrive in its own ecosystem, it “creates a food that’s no longer harmful to humans” and makes a more nutritious product.

“Nature does not operate in a vacuum and neither should we,” King says. “We need to understand the complexity of the world in which we live, then we can start to come up with solutions that do honor our heritage.”

King, who great up in Hong Kong, says older Chinese women store an impressive knowledge of food and medicine. Merging ancient tradition with new science is what will create the living solutions needed to continue living on our planet.

“In fermentation, we have a little trick that we use which is called using a started culture or a mother. I believe that our starter culture…is our human cultural history,” King says. “Once we start tapping this information…we’ll start to come up with amazing solutions, solutions that grow, solutions that rot, solutions that breath.”

Today Ozuke (which means “the best pickled things” in Japanese) still makes pickled veggies, but also teaches fermentation workshops. For more information, visit their webpage.

Craft beer sales increased 8% in 2017, up to $26 billion. Craft beer now accounts for more than 23% of the $111.4 billion U.S. beer market. – Brewers Association

Fermented food producers, it’s time to be vigilant. Economists predict America is on the cusp of a recession. Thankfully, sectors of the food industry remains strong in an economic downturn. Food is a basic necessity consumers won’t cut out of their budget.

But that’s no reason to wait out a recession without caution. That recession-proof statistic only applies to select parts of the food industry. During the Great Recession of 2007-2010, household food spending declined by 7 percent. The United States Department of Agriculture reported it was “the largest inflation-adjusted decline in food spending that accompanied a recession since 1984.” Food purchase patterns also changed, as budget-conscious consumers focused on money-saving methods.

Based on food spending data, there are key lessons fermentation leaders can use to prepare for an impending economic downturn. Here are five ways consumer food spending will change in a recession.

1. Grocery Store Spending Remains Fairly Steady

When the economy is bad, more consumers cook their own food. Spending at grocery stores dropped minimally during the Great Recession, falling only 1.3 percent from 2006 to 2009. The number of home-cooked meals increased, as did the amount of meals eaten in the home with family members.

2. Restaurant Spending Plummets

Restaurant spending rises and falls along with income levels. Dollars spent on food away from home declined 18 percent ($47 billion) during the Great Recession. This large dip in restaurant sales didn’t recover for 10 years. Restaurant sales began decreasing in 2006, and didn’t return to pre-recession levels until 2016. Restaurant Business Online said 2009 and 2010 “would prove to be the

worst two years in the modern era for the restaurant industry.”

3. Consumers Focus on Health

During an economic crisis, consumers are not turning to cheaper, unhealthier food options. USDA data shows adults had “increased concern” for their nutrition during the Great Recession. When the economy was at its worst, more adults were rating their diet as excellent, very good or good as compared with fair or poor. Food quality also improved. Total calories from fat and saturated fat declined; cholesterol content dropped, while fiber intake increased. More adults were also using the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packaging, too.

4. Discount Retailer Sales Rise

As consumers cut their budget, they trade high-end stores for discount, big-box retailers. Sales at Costco, Wal-Mart and Target all climbed 15 percent from 2007 to 2008. Economists point to the purchasing power of big-box retailers. Big-box prices help the retail giants outlast luxury stores and small shops during a recession. Natural supermarket Whole Foods, once criticized for premium prices, shed their “Whole Paycheck” reputation after the recession decreased their sales. In 2008, they began offering discounts, adding store brands and emphasizing value in their marketing.

5. Cost-Cutting Methods Reign

Consumers eliminate discretionary spending in a recession. They clip coupons, watch food sales, shop for generic brands and buy items in bulk. Interestingly, the average number of shopping trips to the grocery store increased during the latest recession, but the amount paid per transaction was 12 percent less. Private-label products (or generic or store brands) expanded faster than well-known, national brands during the recession. A record number 810 new private label food and beverage products was released during the recession, seven times more than the amount released in 2001.

(Photo: Foodies Feed)
(Graph: USDA)

More Americans want their food natural, traditionally sourced and eco-friendly — and 2019 food and beverage laws reflect that philosophy.

Thousands of new laws went into effect in the U.S. on Jan. 1 2019. Fermented food and drink producers need to take note because dozens of those new state and municipal laws will aid fermentation businesses and, in some cases, hurt businesses.

From new rules (increased minimum wage in 19 states) to less regulation (lenient homemade food sale laws; fewer restrictions on craft breweries), to planet saving measures (ban on straws in California restaurants; ban on styrofoam containers in New York restaurants) here’s a breakdown of the major laws affecting the fermentation industry.

Arizona

HB2484 – Food tax is now uniform, a requirement that bans an additional tax for a specific food item. Lawmakers suggested imposing a higher tax on soda and alcohol.

SB1022 – Certain homemade food items can be sold to the public without an inspection by the health department. The food is limited to: fruit jams and jellies, dry mixes, honey, dry pasta and roasted nuts. The food also must be prepared by someone with a food handler’s permit and sales must advertise that it was made in a home kitchen not subject to health inspection.

Arkansas

Arkansas Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force – Sales tax on groceries drops from 1.5 percent to 0.125 percent.

California

SB946 – Sidewalk vending is no longer a crime under the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act. Vendors can determine where they’d like to operate, without asking an adjacent business for permission. Cities and counties will regulate street vendors.

AB1884 – In an attempt to curb ocean waste, single-use plastic straws are only available at a diner’s request. The law applies to full-service restaurants; fast-food establishments are exempt. Violating restaurants could be fined $25 a day and up to $300 annually.

AB626 – Amends state food code to legalize home-based food sales or “microenterprise home kitchens.” Cities and counties are now in charge of permitting small-scale home cooks who want to sell to the public.

SB826 – Publicly-held companies with headquarters in California are required to elect a minimum of one woman on their board by the end of 2019. By the end of 2021, a company with a  five-member board must have two women on their board; a company with six or more directors needs three women on their board. Violators face fines of $100,000-$300,000.

Colorado

SB243 – An update to an alcohol law passed from the Prohibition-era, full-strength beer can now be sold in Colorado grocery stores. Previously, the law only allowed grocery store beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

Illinois

HB4568 – Called the Healthy Local Food Incentives Program, the bill increases low-income residents access to healthy food. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars now include food from farmers markets.

Iowa

HF2391 – The law decreases liability for bars, restaurants and other establishments that serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person. Previously, any alcoholic beverage licensee was on the hook for all damages caused by a person who became intoxicated while at the licensee’s establishment. Now, non-economic damages cap at $250,000 for an injury or death. There’s still no cap for economic damages.

Kentucky

HB136 – Repealing an old cap on craft brewers sales to customers, breweries can now sell three cases and two kegs per customer onsite.

Maine

LD1693 – Clarifying Main liquor laws, a complete separation of two retail liquor establishments is now amended. A manufacturing facility and retail establishment at the same location do not need seperation.

New Jersey

SB410 – Bakers selling their fresh baked goods can now package their product in wrapped or covered containers, for sanitation purposes. Law formerly required all dry food items to be sold without packaging so products could be sold based on their weight.

A2015 – Food – prepared by a third-party, licensed vendor — is now allowed to be sold at small breweries.

New York

SB8078 – New York’s food service businesses can no longer sell or serve food in styrofoam containers. After a six month grace period, fines will cost $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense and $1,000 for three or more.

North Dakota

HB1433 – Known as the “Food Freedom Act,” the bill allows unlicensed cooks to sell homemade products. Meat and raw dairy products are still exempt.

North Carolina

N.C. Farm Act of 2018 – The act includes two sections relating to the fermentation industry. First, vegan, plant-based milk (like almond, rice, soy or coconut) cannot label itself as “milk” — but only if 10 other states adopt similar mislabeling policies. Second, the food and vegetable handler definition has expanded. Anyone dealing with the transfer of fruit and vegetables from a North Carolina farmer will be required to register with the state’s agriculture department.

Pennsylvania

Malt Beverage & Liquor Tax – Starting in July, the state will collect 6 percent sales tax from breweries and taprooms. Breweries have been tax exempt under state law, helping the state’s thriving craft brewery scene.

Rhode Island

S2502 – Eliminates the state’s confusing regulations for street food vendors. The law simplified and streamlined the registration process for food trucks and food carts. Local municipalities now oversee location and hours of operation.

South Dakota

SB173 – Craft and microbrewers can now sell their beer directly to restaurants without a distributor, as long as it’s under 1,500 barrels. Brewers can also make up to 30,000 barrels a year while still keeping licenses that allow offsite taprooms and wine and cider sales. Former law put the limit at 5,000 barrels.

Utah

HB345 – The state passed the strictest drunk driving law in the nation lowering the level for driving under the influence as .05 BAC. The National Transportation Safety Board urged all states to drop the BAC to this level in 2017, but many in the alcohol service industry criticize the law for targeting social drinkers rather than drunk drivers.

Barrel Creek Provisions is now selling on-the-go pouches of their fermented carrots, cucumbers and okra. Formerly known as Hat Creek, the company is rebranding as a powerhouse in the fermented foods industry. Their veggies fermented purely, submerged in a salt brine for a week without heat.

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JuneShine – the world’s first hard kombucha brewery – was started by surfer friends who wanted a transparent, healthy alcohol brand for active people. The organic kombucha has 6% ABV, and launched their brand in May by opening a permanent tasting room in San Diego.

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Toast Ale is brewing to curb food waste. The beer makers take unsold loaves or heels of bread from bakers, then use that fermented bread to brew award-winning beer. The founders estimate 44% of bread is thrown out. 100% of their profits go to Feedback, a nonprofit campaigning against food waste.

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We’ll remember Anthony Bourdain for opening our eyes to new foods and cultures. This time last year, the culinary TV host declared fermented foods as America’s future, adding: “That funk. That corruption of flesh. That’s exactly the flavor zone that we’re all we’re all moving toward.”

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Discovering “the weirdest, funkiest yeast” to ferment is the latest movement in the brewery world. Brewers are fermenting beer from yeast strands found on beer bottles in shipwrecks and old European cellars. The beer comes with a story, a historic element that appeals to customers curiosity and taste buds. #fermentallthethings #brewers #historicbeer https://goo.gl/VQUK1s