Most consumers in North America—in fact, most of the world—have lived in an era in which the food they buy has some type of product label attached to it. This label goes beyond just identifying what the food item is; it also provides information as to its nutritional value, ingredients, and other important consumer notices. However, this has not always been the case.
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For most of modern history, there were few to no labels on food. People produced much of their own food and purchased the rest from the farmer, the butcher, or the baker up the road, in which they knew the items were fresh and local. There were no government inspections or labels. The astute consumer knew what to look for in a piece of fruit or a slab of meat and could tell if it was fresh by poking it, smelling it, or simply looking at it.
And there were few “trust” issues when it came to selecting food. The farmer sold or bartered many of his offerings with the same person who made clothes for his family, taught his children in school, or built his farm equipment.
However, as the world’s population grew, much of this trust began to evaporate, and concerns about the purity, safety, and quality of food increased. These concerns are what led to a history of food rules and regulations, along with the food labeling systems that are in place today—all enacted to help protect the consumer.
A History of Food Labeling
One of the first examples of a labeling system, of sorts, regarding food quality, appeared around A.D. 400 in the Roman Empire. At that time, vendors would stand on the steps of a central location in the city to sell their goods. Those with the highest quality of bread and other food products would stand on the highest steps. For the most part, this system worked. Consumers who could afford it knew to climb the steps for the highest quality food items.
Over the following centuries, rules and regulations were implemented to help ensure food was safe to eat. In the early 1200s, King John of England enacted the Assize of Bread. An assize was an ordinance or regulation, and this one stated that “upon every measure, bushel, weight, and upon every loaf, the name of the owner (i.e. maker) [be] distinctly written.” The attempt here was to inform the consumer as to who made the bread, and thereby help him or her determine if it was someone trustworthy. It also allowed the government to track down bakers who used inferior ingredients or marketed products that caused illness.
By the mid-1600s, Massachusetts, and later Virginia, adopted regulations very similar to the Assize of Bread. In time, they expanded labels to apply not just to flour and bread items but also to such things as meat and pork, wine, and especially butter. (At that time, butter was considered the most adulterated food product sold to consumers.)
Modern Food Labeling Regulations
What may be the most significant step forward in protecting the consumer and developing standards for food labeling in the U.S. is the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed in 1938. The statutes and regulations it put in place still impact the food labeling industry today. Among its provisions, many of which were novel and controversial at the time, included:
- A food product will be considered “misbranded” if its labeling is false or misleading in any way;
- The sale of one food under the name of another is prohibited;
- A food product will be considered misbranded if its container is made, formed, or filled in such a way as to mislead the consumer;
- The label must bear the name and place of business of the manufacturer or packer; and
- Information on the product label must be prominently displayed and easily readable by the consumer.
Today, with more and more food grown, produced, processed, distributed, and marketed all over the globe by millions of companies, the need for proper, understandable, and transparent food labeling continues to grow.
For example, according to a January 2015 report on CNN, more than 500,000 food production and processing companies operate in China, and more than 70 percent of them have fewer than 10 employees. This makes it almost impossible to investigate all of these companies and ensure that the food is being prepared, processed, and handled properly. The labeling provided on many of these food items is often limited or incorrect. In fact, according to the CNN report, the quality control specialist AsiaInspection found that “48 percent of the ‘several thousand’ inspections, audits, and tests it conducted in China [in 2014] failed to meet the requirements stipulated by some of its clients”—many of which are Western food companies and retailers, such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, and Pizza Hut.
Sustainability and Cost Savings
In the U.S. and many parts of the Western world, there is growing concern about how much food is being wasted. Waste can no longer stand as the status quo in the 21st century, whether it applies to natural resources, water, or food. Steps are evolving to specifically address the issue of food waste.
It is estimated that more than $161 billion worth of food is simply tossed away every year in the U.S. There have been some strategies developed in various American communities to address this waste of food, mainly in the form of donating unsold food from grocery stores to charities. However, to make a real dent in this huge amount of waste, much more has to be done on a national scale.
In the realm of food donation, Europe has taken a number of steps. In France, for instance, laws have been passed requiring grocery stores to donate unsold food items to various charities, while Italy and Germany now have tax incentives to encourage retailers, restaurants, and other businesses to donate food.
Germany has set a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2025. One not-for-profit restaurant there hopes to raise awareness of food waste by making dishes out of “rejected food items.” Many of these rejected food items are rejected because they no longer look fresh enough for some retailers to market. However, in most cases, the food is perfectly edible.
In the U.S., it appears that one of the biggest reasons that so much food is wasted is not because the food doesn’t look as fresh as retailers would like but because the date on the food label confuses or, in some cases, misinforms the consumer. Even grocery store workers admit that these dates cause them confusion.
To be clear, the problem is not with an expiration date. Instead, it is phrases such as “sell by,” “best by,” or “use by” that cause the most confusion.
These phrases, says Dana Gunders, senior scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, 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. [They] are poorly regulated and misinterpreted and lead to a false confidence in food safety.”
What these terms often refer to has nothing to do with the actual shelf life of the product or when the food item should no longer be marketed or sold. Instead, these printed dates often represent the food item’s peak freshness.
However, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is now taking steps to address this confusion, hoping to reduce food waste and benefit the entire food manufacturing and processing industry by having standard terminology. FSIS was recently accepting comments about these proposed changes until mid-February. According to FSIS research, the phrase “best if used by” causes less confusion, and consumers view this phrase as an indicator of food quality rather than food safety.
“In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy,” says Al Almanza, USDA deputy under secretary for food safety. “This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.”
Should these changes be adopted, restaurants, grocery stores, grab-and-go kiosks, and food manufacturers and processing companies will update their dating protocols. Labeling technologies are available to make the process relatively easy. Standardizing food labels to provide consistent information will help consumers feel safer about the quality of their food and help reduce waste.
Carte is category manager of food safety at DayMark Safety Systems, manufacturer of grab-and-go food-labeling terminals. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.