Best if used by date on a jar of peanut butter

Will simplified food labels be enough?

The move to simplify food labels is a nice gesture, but I think we may be giving it too much thought.

Foods labels have confused consumers ever since Ugg put a “gluten-free” sticker on a package of wooly mammoth loins. Further confusion arose, when he later added “best if used by 100,000 BC,” because he neglected to include proper handling techniques for properly preparing the mammoth brisket. Not to mention what was he supposed to do with the leftovers.

Food regulations in the United States date back to colonial days, and it is good to have that oversight, but maybe, just maybe we are taking this label issue too far. Or maybe putting too much thought into it.

Labels have changed over the years, telling us what’s is in our food (even though we could barely pronounce all of the ingredients) to the nutritional value of said food (not sure I need to know that one stick of gum gives me zero grams of protein) to assisting with proper handling (I would hope most everyone knows not to leave a pork chop on the kitchen counter for a week and still expect it to be good).

Food safety is a big issue, and rightfully so, and I think proper handling techniques need to clearly be marked on every food product, especially meats. We all have seen how a meat-related illness gets played out in the media. A large banquet gathering ends up with numbers of attendees getting sick, and the meat product and the livestock producers get blamed for the lack of transparency of how that animal was raised. Ignored can be the fact that the caterer maybe didn’t have the best SOPs for handling fresh meat.

Regardless if the true culprit in an illness outbreak is determined, people will remember in the news that the people got sick after eating a meat product. The specific species industry will take a hit, though hopefully short-lived, as will the entire meat industry.

The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, two of the nation’s largest grocery store trade groups, want to simplify the number of labels consumers see — down from the current double-digit different date labels to two. The groups have announced a joint effort to get retailers to adopt a unified industry standard to use “best if used by” date label for food quality and “use by” for products that are highly perishable or have a food safety concern over time.

Phrasing such as “sell by,” “best by,” “born on date,” “for best quality, use by” and “for best quality, use within 10 days of opening” have graced our food products for years, and I find it hard to believe that “best if used by” or “use by” will greatly change the way consumers handle and prepare their food.

We are all creatures of habit, and I think a culinary expert could embed themselves into a family home for half a year dedicating themselves to educating the entire family all about how the labels are meant to enhance their home-dining experience, only to have the family slide back into their familiar routine shortly after that.

As we have found in the internet world, and proliferation in social media, people want things immediately, if not sooner. People’s attention spans have short expiration dates.

I think the pork producers and their affiliate organizations do a great job of telling people the best wait to purchase, handle and prepare the bountiful pork product. This is one area where the burden of social media can be a boon to the pork industry and food safety concerns. Proper and delicious pork prep tips can be spread across to millions in Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in a matter of seconds.

The sad realism is that a negative food issue can spread equally aggressively as good food news on social media, and that has no concern for what was on the original label.

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