By Andy Harig, Vice President, Tax, Trade, Sustainability & Policy Development, FMI

Rosemary CrackersWhen I found a bag of snack mix in the pantry during a recent move, I didn’t look at the product’s date label before I hungrily devoured its contents. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that the snack was nearly seven years old, and instead of hints of fennel and rosemary, the tasting notes were reminiscent of the cardboard boxes I was packing. Taste relates to quality, and my hasty mistake was a stale reminder that on-pack date labels are an important guide for the consumer about a product’s quality and overall snacking experience.  

FMI’s recent FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report revealed that shoppers are employing a wide range of strategies and tactics to find their equation for good value, including maximizing price-quantity ratios and even trading up. While the concept of value is more nuanced, the notion of quality is still regarded as the guiding principle for satisfying consumers’ expectations.

The definition of quality certainly extends well beyond the fine print on a package, but freshness and overall experience create better relationships with customers and repeat purchases. At FMI, we’ve been long committed to supporting the emotional, taste and value-setting conversations between the food industry and consumers. 

One of these conversations centers on our industry’s activities related to product date labels. Grocery manufacturers and retailers joined together several years ago to streamline and standardize the wording accompanying date labels on packages to offer greater clarity regarding the quality, and in some cases, the safety of products. This effort was meant to help reduce consumer confusion over dates on the product label and potentially help consumers avoid unnecessary food waste. This voluntary, national initiative streamlined more than 10 different date labels on consumer products packaging down to just two standard phrases: 

  1. “BEST If Used By” or “BEST If Used or Freeze By” quality phrasing indicates to consumers that after the specified date, the product – while still completely safe to use or consume - may have exceeded the threshold of its optimal taste or performance. For example, the quality of the product’s taste or texture may have diminished slightly, or it may not have the full vitamin content indicated on the package.
  2. “USE By” or “USE or Freeze By” discard phrasing will inform customers that these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package. This date label is for perishable products with potential safety implications or material degradation of critical performance over time, including a number of nutrition factors. 

FMI’s board of directors also re-ratified a policy statement in January 2023 to strongly encourage the adoption of these terms. 

To further complement consumer education on quality, FMI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cornell University developed The FoodKeeper, a brochure with information on how to safely store, handle and prepare individual food items based on USDA data, in the early 90s. Today, it’s an app and website with both English and Spanish resources for how to preserve freshness and quality of products. The latest version of the app also has food recall notifications. Since The FoodKeeper is based on USDA data, it’s accurate and science based. This site also has a media kit. 

My personal lesson from eating a snack well past its designated prime only underlined the trust I have in brand quality experiences. It’s in our best interest to continue the transparent conversation with shoppers and continue to deliver on their definition of value across quality, relevance, convenience and experience.