If you are a food producer, a new labeling requirement could be headed your way.

Last month, a Harvard Law/Natural Resources Defense Counsel joint study discovered that misinterpretation of dates printed on packaged foods is a significant contributor to national food waste.  Shockingly, confusion over terms like “sell-by” and “best before” cause Americans to waste 160 billion pounds of food each year, costing the average family of four between $1365 and $2275 annually. The study recommended a series of actions to improve our food waste problem, including making sell-by dates invisible to consumers, developing a uniform consumer-facing date-labeling system to avoid misinterpretation of a food’s freshness, and increasing the use of safe-handling instructions on date labels.

Manufacturers often determine freshness dates (i.e. sell-by, best by, and expiration dates) through shelf-life testing. This can be done by testing and monitoring a product over its actual shelf-life, which can take several years for very stable products, or through accelerated shelf-life testing, where food is stored and studied in test-abuse conditions of differing temperature and humidity levels. For now, the use of shelf-life testing is “almost entirely optional” and is often avoided due to its high costs. The Harvard/NRDC study, however, advises that manufacturers using label dates should be required, “where practical,” to engage in quantitative shelf-life testing to determine appropriate dates.  If this or other similar studies inspire stricter date-labeling regulations, food manufacturers could become obligated to employ shelf-life testing, perhaps to their financial detriment.

Information is a great thing to give a consumer, but it will come with a cost.  Compliance with existing labeling laws is already financially and logistically challenging. Manufacturers are already required to:

  • Structure a label in accordance with FDA guidelines, which are so specific they indicate the appropriate font sizes to be use on different portions of the label.
  • Understand how to articulate nutrient content claims like “low-fact”, “high in Omega-3”, and “sugar-free.
  • Determine the presence of and properly list 8 major allergens on their labels;
  • Analyze the nutrition content of their foods, then properly state it on their Nutrition Facts Panel.
  • Keep abreast of changes in regulation to marketing claims like  “gluten-free” or “all-natural”.
  • Understand the various types of health claims that can be made on products and the varying levels of scientific substantiation needed for each one.

Preventing food waste is a noble goal, but it will be an additional burden for those new to the marketplace. With every aspect of a food label already controlled by federal regulation, adding another compliance requirement would disproportionately burden the small producer in particular.