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.

The new “it” clean food label: Glyphosate Residue-Free Certification. The main ingredient in weed killer, glyphosate is the most heavily used pesticide in the world. A probable human carcinogen, Forbes estimates it’s about to become a household name consumers will cut out of their food. Though glyphosate is banned in organic crops, it still drifts into the organic food supply, especially in anything oat-based. The new label is awarded by 3rd-party The Detox Project, who regularly tests brands for glyphosates. Costing $1,472 per year, the certification was first granted to Foodstirs, the organic baking company launched by actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and Galit Laibow.

Read more (Forbes) (Photo by: Foodstirs)

Starting in January, cooks will be able to legally sell homemade food in California. The state passed a law decriminalizing the sale of homemade food in the state. This is exciting news for home fermenters who can now legally sell their home-cooked food without paying hefty licensing fees and adhering to strict food handler rules. The new law, though, still falls short. Earnings are limited to $50,000 a year, the kitchen must employ only one cook and a $500 license is still required. In the heavily—regulated state of California, though, the LA Times notes it’s a step in the right direction: “…reflecting bipartisan recognition of the ways that overzealous food regulation disproportionately hurts those at the very bottom of the state’s economic ladder, robbing them of opportunities to better their lot, undermining their self-reliance, and leaving them vulnerable to needless legal sanctions.”

Read more (LA Times)

Should big beer brands be allowed to patent barley? In Europe, a major win for a group of small brewers who were suing Heineken and Carlsberg. The European Patent Office allowed the brewing giants to patent several kinds of barley. Heineken and Carlsberg say they invented the barley strains. Critics of the patent, though, say the barley naturally occurs and it’s based on fermenting science that brewers have used for thousands of years. In the first of three hearings, the patent office says the big beer brands could only have patents to barley with a specific genetic mutation.

Read more (The Times)

Though more consumers want probiotics only 2 percent of new food and drinks launched in the last 12 months were marketed as containing probiotics. A study found its because of regulatory issues. Companies (especially in the dairy category) are uncertain whether or not they can legally label a product as containing probiotics. Labeling the food as fermented instead could aid a product’s natural and healthy image, the study concludes, since more consumers are viewing fermentation as an authentic natural food and beverage choice.

Read more (Nutritional Outlook)

A New York senator is pushing change for federal alcohol regulators to ease up on hard ciders. Cider owners cannot legally sell hard cider with an alcoholic content below 7% in cans, forcing them to use wine containers instead. This hurts most quality, fermented apple ciders, the senator argues, because they must water down their product to sell it in cans.

Read more (WXXI) Photo by CNY News

A professor in Culinary Food Arts & Science shares his expertise on how restaurants can safely (and legally) put fermented foods on their menu. Because health code regulations require a time limit foods can go without refrigeration, the restriction makes it near impossible for restaurants to serve their own fermented foods. Creating a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan approved by the health department helps. Another option is to stop fermenting in the restaurant and instead buy high-quality fermented foods from a third-party that can be refrigerated.

Read More (Restaurant Business Online)

Thanks to Minnesota’s recent Cottage Food Law, 2,300 food startups have popped up in the state. The law allows micro businesses that make under $18,000 a year to sell their products at co-ops, farmers’ markets and grocery stores without a license. Fermented foods are some of the most popular in the state’s wave of local food retailers because most fermented foods don’t require refrigeration and allow for creativity in the kitchen.

Read more (Twin Cities Pioneer Press)

Lawmakers from Oregon and Colorado are advocating for a new bill that would modernize outdated federal alcohol taxes. Known as the KOMBUCHA Act (Keeping our Manufacturers from Being Unfairly Taxed while Championing Health Act), the bill aims to increase the ABV for kombucha from 0.5 percent to 1.25 percent so kombucha can be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage. Currently, many kombucha brewers are forced to pay an alcohol tax and abide by regulations intended for the alcohol industry. Kombucha Brewers International is lobbying for the bipartisan bill. You can signup to track the bill here, at congress.gov.

Read more (Kombucha Brewers International) & Read more (Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR)