Fast Facts

Almost a third of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. This includes food thrown out due to confusion over the date printed on its packaging (date labels).

Manufacturers use a variety of labels such as "best by" or "enjoy by" to show how long food will have the best taste. However, consumers may falsely believe these are expiration labels and throw out food that is still safe to eat.

States regulate date labels for some foods. USDA and the Food and Drug Administration are educating consumers about date labels but do not regulate them. We recommended improved federal coordination with state and local governments on these labels.

Photo of food packages with dates printed on them.

Photo of food packages with dates printed on them.

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have taken steps to address consumer confusion about date labels on packaged foods. For example, to reduce confusion about introductory phrases on date labels, such as whether the dates indicate food is safe to eat (see figure), and resulting food waste, USDA in December 2016 issued a fact sheet on date labels for consumers. In addition, USDA has funded research on issues related to date labels (e.g., how labels affected participants' willingness to waste food) and developed a smartphone application that provides consumers with information on the shelf life of products. FDA has issued educational materials to consumers about the meaning of phrases on date labels and in May 2019 issued a statement that it supports industry efforts to standardize date labels.

Examples of Introductory Phrases for Date Labels Currently Used by Industry

High01_5_v2_Labels_102595

USDA and FDA have coordinated on some initiatives focused on date labels on packaged foods. For example, agency officials said they were working together to develop information for food banks, food donors, and recipients of donated food on how to interpret date labels so food past the date on the label—but otherwise wholesome—is not wasted. In October 2018, the agencies, with the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a formal agreement to educate consumers about food loss and waste. In addition, USDA and FDA have taken steps to work with some nonfederal stakeholders—such as nonprofit organizations and an international organization—on date labeling. However, USDA and FDA officials told GAO that they do not have a specific mechanism to coordinate with state, local, and tribal officials on creating a common approach to date labels. State, local, and tribal governments may choose to regulate date labels, and the majority of states have date label requirements for certain foods. According to prior GAO work, ensuring that relevant participants are included in interagency collaborative efforts is a leading practice for interagency collaboration. By developing a mechanism to facilitate coordination with nonfederal stakeholders, such as state, local, and tribal officials, on actions related to date labels, USDA and FDA could better assure that approaches they take to address consumer understanding of date labels are effective in helping reduce consumer confusion.

Why GAO Did This Study

USDA has reported that almost one-third of the U.S. food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. Studies indicate that some of this waste may occur because of consumer confusion about the meaning of date labels displayed on packaged food. Such labels are not federally regulated, and food manufacturers use different phrases on date labels. USDA and FDA have roles in ensuring the U.S. food supply is safe and properly labeled, but neither agency been directed—or given express authority—to regulate date labels.

GAO was asked to examine consumer confusion about date labels. This report (1) describes the steps USDA and FDA have taken to address consumer confusion about date labels and (2) examines the extent to which USDA and FDA have coordinated with each other and with nonfederal stakeholders on date labels. GAO reviewed studies on date labels and FDA and USDA documents; interviewed agency officials and representatives of nonfederal stakeholders, such as industry, advocacy organizations, and state governments; and compared the agencies' efforts to leading practices identified by GAO.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is recommending that USDA and FDA develop a mechanism to facilitate coordination with relevant nonfederal stakeholders on actions related to date labels. USDA and FDA agreed with our recommendation and are planning actions to implement the recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should work with the Commissioner of FDA to develop a mechanism to facilitate coordination with relevant nonfederal stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments, on actions related to date labels as part of their efforts to reduce food loss and waste. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
USDA agreed with our recommendation and, as of July 2021, had taken actions to implement our recommendation. For example in October 2019, the USDA, EPA and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA, composed of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the National Restaurant Association) on "formal collaboration on industry education and engagement with respect to the importance of food waste reduction." The MOU is intended to further the agency's Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. In December 2019, USDA posted frequently asked questions on the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 to help address potential confusion about the coverage of the Act and encourage increased food donations. In addition, in July 2021, USDA said it intended to leverage existing mechanisms for interacting with state, local, and tribal officials to develop actions to reduce confusion about food date labels. These mechanisms include working with groups such as the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, the National Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of City and County Health Officials, and the National Environmental Health Association. In addition, USDA said it will look to leverage the newly created State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Winning on Reducing Food Waste group, which was initiated by EPA in April 2019, to address confusion about food date labels. Members of this group are state, local, tribal, and territorial governmental organizations that have made a pledge to work together with federal partners to build upon new or existing efforts to address food loss and waste in the United States.
Food and Drug Administration The Commissioner of FDA should work with the Secretary of Agriculture to develop a mechanism to facilitate coordination with relevant nonfederal stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments, on actions related to date labels as part of their efforts to reduce food loss and waste. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
FDA agreed with our recommendation and, in coordination with USDA, as of July 2021, has both established new mechanisms (e.g., new Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs)) and utilized existing mechanisms to facilitate stakeholder engagement and coordination with relevant nonfederal stakeholders on date labeling and food waste issues. For example, in April 2019, FDA, along with USDA and EPA, signed a formal MOU with ReFED, Inc. to collaborate on efforts to reduce food waste in the United States. ReFED, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that works with stakeholders from industry, nonprofit, foundation, and government organizations. Specifically, the MOU provides a mechanism for ReFED, Inc. to collaborate with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials on food waste efforts. The three agencies are currently working on renewing the agreement with ReFED, Inc. In October 2019, FDA, along with USDA and EPA, signed an MOU with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA, composed of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the National Restaurant Association) to formalize a mutual initiative to collaborate on industry education and outreach efforts. FDA also uses the development of consumer education materials as a mechanism to facilitate outreach with key stakeholders. Specifically, in 2020, FDA released an infographic on food waste entitled "Confused about what the date labels on food packages mean?" and four new video animation shorts, including one called "Understanding Date Labels on Food Packages," to address consumer confusion about date labels. Finally, FDA officials said they use regular conferences and meetings with stakeholder groups as an opportunity to discuss key issues related to food waste and date labels. For example, FDA holds regular meetings with the members of the Safe Food Coalition and the Make Our Food Safe Coalition (a coalition of consumer groups) to share insights on the respective organizations' positions. In February 2020, FDA and the coalition members used one of these meetings to discuss perspectives on voluntary efforts to standardize date labeling of packaged foods and its relationship to food safety. As another example, FDA served on a roundtable at the 2020 Annual Conference of the International Association of Food Protection in a session entitled, "A Balancing Act: Minimizing Food Waste While Striving to Maximize Food Safety." Furthermore, FDA coordinates with the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) Food Recovery committee. The AFDO Food Recovery Committee unites government regulators, industry officials, and other interested individuals to provide a forum to discuss and identify strategies that can be taken to prevent and divert wasted food. According to FDA officials, the agency is an active participant on the committee and continues to support its work.

Full Report

GAO Contacts