The refreshed grocery department skews towards grab and go food items. (Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

The federal Food and Drug Administration’s move to clarify food freshness labels is a positive step in addressing food wastefulness it says is a large problem in this country.

A recent letter to food companies seeks to standardize the current food labels, most often “sell by”, “best by” and “best if used by” dates into the latter category. The FDA’s letter said the phrase is easily understood by consumers and may lead more people to eat the food if it’s not far beyond the “best if used by” date.

The FDA said up to one third of the food purchased in this country is tossed, much of it needlessly. The agency said about 20 percent of the wasted food is due to label confusion.

Yet it’s understandable. The labels say different things and purchasers must follow their instincts on the meaning.

Better safe than sorry, many think. Safe? Well, that’s another story as the food labels are meant as a guide to freshness, not safety.

The two are partially combined with some foods. Soured, smelly milk for example. Or red meat that’s turned green.

Canned items and processed foods can last a long time, apparently, and often the taste doesn’t suffer.

Though the FDA asks for data from food companies to support their freshness dates, the labeling sometimes appears arbitrary.

Arizona’s Legislature – not a food safety agency – last year extended the expiration date of many eggs for sale in stores. The law decreed those eggs are now safe for sale for up to 45 days instead of the previous 24.

The FDA’s labeling order is not mandatory, though some food industry groups were already working to standardize the labels.

High food waste is bad for the family pocketbook and it’s bad because not everyone has enough to eat. The new labeling edict is a good start that can become an even better method to help food purchasers understand the quality of the product.

It might even spur further action on another labeling front – medicine. Tests show many of the expiration date on drugs is meaningless, but there are enough exceptions to test consumers’ confidence.

Given the FDA’s name, it isn’t a stretch to consider other ways to help the public make the most of their food and drug purchases.

— Today’s News-Herald


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