BALTIMORE -- Sell by..., use by..., best by... What do all these phrases mean? According to panelists at FMI's Food Safety Conference here, a nationwide standard would ease the burden on both consumer and retailer when it comes to the issue of open dating.
"Open dating is a complex issue but has high consumer demand," said Ted Labuza, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Food Science. "They want it, but they want it to be simple."
Labuza and co-speaker, David Richmond, vice president for quality assurance at Giant Food, Landover, Md., said that the demand for such information is certainly high: In the aftermath of deadly outbreaks of foodborne pathogens such as E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes, consumers are looking to the dates on food packages to assist them in selecting the best products. The problem facing these consumers is understanding the real message behind the label.
"It's rare today to find a package without a date on it," said Richmond. "But, different companies' dates mean different things."
The most common confusion arises in the most simple forms, according to Labuza. He said there are so many different methods of product dating that consumers cannot get a handle on what the date even stands for. Are they for freshness or quality? Do they indicate when foods are unsafe to eat? And what exactly happens to the product in question on that fateful marked day? Making matters worse is the answer is just as maddening: it depends.
Nevertheless, coded items provide retailers with the ability to track shelf life. "Open-dated products promote effective rotation," Richmond added. "They lend well to the practice of first in, first out."
Giant uses a three-month rule. If a product expires in January, it is pulled off the shelves in September. Color-coded dots on each shelf tag are updated quarterly and help to alert employees when a product should be removed, he said.
While the dates certainly are safer than a total lack of guidance, many consumers, as well as those in the industry, have questioned why nothing has been done at the national level to implement a single dating system. Labuza said the problem lies with jurisdiction.
"Food-dating laws only exist on the federal level for prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications and infant formula," he said. " All other food products are voluntary."
He said that state-level lawsuits have found that "open dating relates to public health, which is not covered in the Constitution, but may be regulated at the state level."
This authority has led to various rulings from state to state, and Labuza used the regulation of fluid milk as an example. While many, like California, Florida, Michigan and New Jersey, have left the decision of shelf life up to the processors, others have made their own decisions. Connecticut and Montana have stipulated a 12-day maximum shelf life, whereas Maryland and Pennsylvania allow 14 days. Still others, like Virginia and New York City, have even placed minimum requirements on the fluid milk.
Considering the volume of products carried in today's supermarkets, and the variety of places from which they originate, Labuza said the average consumer could spend ages simply trying to decipher which items will allow them the greatest usage period. What many of them do not realize is that, beyond understanding the time frame represented by the package date, there are temperature regulations to consider as well.
Labuza noted one company that labels both its sour cream and fat-free sour cream with freshness dates. If a consumer were to read the fine print, he or she would learn that both items are quality assured, if properly refrigerated, for seven days beyond the date marked. What they are not likely to realize is that "proper refrigeration" is between 40 and 44 degrees for the regular and between 33 and 40 degrees for the fat-free variety. This style of freshness labeling causes problems on many levels, Labuza said.
"Improper storage at home can contribute to product contamination," he said. "But [home] refrigerators don't provide temperature gauges with actual temperatures, they use letters instead, which tell the consumer nothing."
To that end, results from a recent survey conducted by The Retail Food Industry Center found that many consumers are unaware that 40 degrees is the preferred temperature for refrigerated foods. In addition, Labuza, who helped compile the Home Consumer Food Handling Survey, said only 54% of participants had their refrigerator set at a safe level. "Makes you worry about the other 46%," he said.
To address this dilemma, Richmond said Giant highlights the importance of time-temperature indicators as well as product thermometers.
"We encourage our consumers to use thermometers to ensure they are cooking to 163 degrees," he said. "Those thermometers could also be used to gauge the temperature inside their refrigerators."
Richmond said Giant's customers prefer statements which leave little room for question, such as "use by" or "expires on."