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Small Changes for Large Benefits

Today you can walk into any grocery store and purchase a number of items whose date labels all say a different phrase.  One might say “sell by”, another might say “use by”, or “expires on”, “best before”, “better if used by”, or even “best by”.  The list goes on.  But to you—as the consumer—what do these phrases really mean?  Sure, I can buy a product before its “sell by” date, but how do I know when it’s no longer safe to eat?  At what point after that “sell by” date should I throw it out?  Customer Confusion when it comes to date labels has been a common issue in the grocery industry for some time.  But thanks to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), that’s about to change.  These two companies along with some major retailers such as Walmart, who is currently the largest grocery retailer in the U.S., are simplifying the system by implementing a standard of two phrases to use on packaging rather than the numerous and somewhat ambiguous terms that were previously being used.

The first term is “Best if used by” which describes the quality of the product.  After the date listed, the customer should be aware that the product may not taste or perform as expected but that it is still safe to consume or use after the date has passed.  The second term is “Use by”.  This term should be listed for products that are highly perishable or have a food safety concern over time.  Customers should be aware that the product should be consumed by the date listed on the package and disposed of after that date.  This change in labeling is completely voluntary.  However, retailers and manufacturers within the industry are being encouraged to start using the new standard terms and eliminating use of other terms immediately as there is hope for widespread adoption of the phrases across the industry by the summer of 2018.

The FMI and GMA believe that this initiative will not only benefit their customers by providing them with clear and understandable date label information that will ultimately allow them to be confident in a product’s quality, but also by minimizing the amount of food waste sent to landfills.  About 44% of food waste in landfills come from consumers.  By adding clarity and consistency to food date labels, that percentage can be reduced by at least 8% just from addressing an issue as simple as customer confusion.  And according to the director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, it is also one of the most cost effective ways to reduce food waste.  FMI’s and GMA’s sate label initiative has already received a fair amount of praise by a number of companies and groups, and reasonably so from its numerous benefits to consumers in the form of clarity, to the nation in the form of reduced food waste, and even to the industry as this change will likely increase profits in the long run as it caters to the needs and values of stakeholders.

What I found pretty interesting about this action is that there are usually some obvious and rather sizable consequences to appealing to stakeholders’ needs, most of which are financial consequences as it is often costly and timely to make changes, therefore decreasing profits in the short run.  However, in this case, the changes being made are so miniscule—only two or three words on a label—that it seems as if companies will hardly be negatively impacted in the short run.  It is also interesting to think about how even some of the most simplistic changes within an industry could have such positive effects.

So what do you think?  Can you think of any consequences of this change in the industry?  Or perhaps and simplistic changes that could be made in another or the same industry that would similarly have multiple positive effects?

About Victoria Mattson

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