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Food safety conference:
Confusing date labels on food a problem for consumers
But what do they mean?
Most consumers don't have a clue, according to experts at the ongoing conference for the International Association for Food Protection in Indianapolis. The session on food dating, one of dozens at the conference, was standing room only.
The panelists, including leaders from industry, consumer advocacy groups, academia and government, agreed that the lack of a food dating system is a problem and not only for shoppers. Some manufacturers are confused about what to do.
"We talked to small companies," said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University. "They said: 'We don't know what we're doing.'"
A study by Harvard and the Natural Resources Defense League that came out last year revealed a patchwork of regulations across the country. More than 40 states have statutes on the book. But many do not.
Oregon and Washington require date labels on all perishable foods. California requires dates on shellfish and milk and dairy products. Alaska only has regulations on shellfish and Idaho has no dating regulations at all.
And there are none on the federal books either, something's that not going to change anytime soon, according to one of the panelists, Jenny Scott, a senior advisor at the Food and Drug Administration.
"We have other fish to fry," Scott said.
She said it's up to industry to decide on a system, something that Frank Yiannas, a senior food safety official at Walmart, agreed would be a good idea.
"If large sections of industry adopt a nomenclature system – that would be huge," Yiannas said.
Food-dating confusion is not a health issue. No known outbreaks have been caused by consumers eating food past their "use by" date, said Broad Leib. But she added that it does lead to enormous food waste, piling up landfills, at a time when 15 percent of U.S. residents don't have enough to eat.
Many consumers pitch food on the "sell by" date, which is directed at retailers, advising them to rotate their stocks, said Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety at the Food Marketing Institute. Other consumers go by the "use by" date which covers freshness, she said.
Food Dating Labels Industry and consumer advocates at a food safety conference agree: Consumers are baffled by food dating labels.
But many elderly people, who grew up at a time when food was more scarce, don't even look at the date, consuming items regardless of the label.
"It's critically important that we think through the solutions in terms of the actual customers," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, head of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We really need to tell onsumers what we want them to do and use labeling effectively to do that."
Manufacturers are hesitant to adopt a dating system that would indicate that at some point their product was unsafe to eat, Thesmar said.
"So much of the code dating is quality based" because companies are comfortable with that," Thesmar said.
The United States is not likely to adopt a single food dating system anytime soon. But industry, food safety advocates and researchers agree, judging from the panel's discussion, that minds are merging on the need for one.
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