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.”

Fermented food and drink bar GYST is expanding locations, workshops — and research. The Minneapolis-based company is teaming up with University of Minnesota Food Science and Nutrition Department to study the health benefits of a consistent diet of lacto-fermented foods. GYST will study topics like: will the health of soil produce better fermented foods, does organic produce create better fermentation and do different vegetables produce different bacteria.

Read more (City Pages)

The global tempeh market will grow 4% over the next 5 years. More supermarkets will carry tempeh, contributing to the fermented soy product’s growth.

Ever thrown out a jar of kimchi because of those pesky white mold bubbles? Fear not – it’s not mold, it’s yeast! Researchers say just skim it off, rinse the veggie, heat it and it’s totally safe to eat. The World Institute of Kimchi (WiKim) released a study on the hygenic safety of the yeast strains that form on kimchi, a report which was published in the Journal of Microbiology. WiKim General Director Dr. Jaeho Ha said the study is significant because “it is a step forward toward the alleviation of the anxiety for hygienic safety of kimchi.”

Read more (Phys.org)

The Fermentation Association (TFA), getting more people to enjoy fermented products. Join us at fermentationassociation.org .

Fermented foods are the No. 1 superfood of 2018, according to a poll of U.S. dietitians. “The rising popularity of fermented foods demonstrates how consumers have expanded their definition of wellness to include improved gut health, which is a benefit of consuming fermented foods,” according to Food Business News. The article highlighted numerous chefs experimenting with fermented ingredients, and fermented food producers who share the health benefits of eating fermented products. These food industry experts point out that consumers today are looking for a twist on classic dishes, and fermented foods add bold flavors. Like pairing pickled veggies with tacos, adding fermented Brussels sprouts on a tapas plate and brining French fries in a salt and cabbage solution.

Read more (Food Business News) (Photo: Cultured Love)

It’s National Pickle Day — Forbes explains why pickles are not a fading trend, but a growing food culture with staying power. The pickle market is growing, reaching a value of $12.74 billion by 2020 (half of that – $6.70 billion – is just in the U.S.). Pickles curb dehydration, are packed with antioxidants like vitamin C and E and the fermented vinegar in the juice is good for your gut. Today, pickle concoctions can be found on most aisles of a grocery store, from sports drinks to popcorn to popsicles.

Read more (Forbes)

Fermented milk from yogurt to kefir to buttermilk is spiking in popularity. It’s estimated to grow 3.7% CAGR from 2017 to 2023, thanks to its long shelf-life, easy digestion and antioxidants.

The Fermentation Association (TFA), getting more people to enjoy fermented products. Join us at The Fermentation Association.

Americans no longer want preservative-filled American cheese. Sales of Kraft Singles and Velveeta cheese are on their fourth year of declining sales. Consumers are looking for high-quality cheeses instead. The number of U.S. cheese factories increased 40 percent between 2000 and 2017, growth driven by small, specialty cheesemakers. Even popular U.S. chain restaurants are switching out American cheese for better flavors (like fontina and smoked gouda), new recipes that are resulting in higher sales.

Read more (Bloomberg) (Photo: Foodies Feed)

Food scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found vegetables are the main source of fermentation-related microbes. Many in the fermentation field commonly think food handlers, food prep surfaces, production environment or other environmental sources effect the bacteria in fermented vegetables. Testing was done as Mass.-based Real Pickles, and the company founder said he was fascinated to learn how fresh, organic vegetables play a key part in a diverse microbial environment for fermentation.

Read more (Science Daily) (Photo: Real Pickles)