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Several Minnesota food companies said Monday that they will adopt simpler phrasing to clear up confusion over the meaning of expiration dates on packages.

Many consumers falsely assume it is unsafe to eat or drink products after a "sell by" or "use by" date, leading them to throw away good food.

There are now at least 10 such phrases marking food and drink packages, which contributes to the confusion. That's why the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute, trade groups for food and beverage companies, are suggesting all packages be marked with either a "best if used by" or "use by" date.

General Mills, Hormel Foods Corp., Cargill Inc. and Land O'Lakes are some of the Minnesota-based members of the groups. General Mills and Hormel, reached Monday, said they plan to comply with this new voluntary guidance within the next year.

The action comes two months after the U.S. Department of Agriculture laid out similar guidance, suggesting food makers and retailers do a better job communicating with shoppers on the meaning of its label dates.

Apart from infant formula, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and USDA do not require dates on products. The labels are to inform retailers and consumers of when the product will taste best. The USDA proposed only using "best if used by" labels.

According to the food industry trade groups, "best if used by" describes a product's quality while "use by" applies to the few highly perishable products for which the date marks a threshold of food safety.

For most foods, the date does not signal a safety concern, yet consumers are unwittingly throwing out edible products because of date labels. The plethora of phrases has made it worse, a 2013 study by Harvard University's Food Law and Policy Clinic found.

"Faced with a range of phrases and dates stamped on food products, few of which are defined or regulated, consumers misinterpret date labels," the researchers found. "Erring on the side of caution and hoping to avoid spoiled or unsafe food, many Americans wind up tossing food out when it is often still good to eat."

The USDA estimates that nearly one-third of all food is thrown away uneaten. Simple package changes is one way to address such waste.

The trade groups' proposal is voluntary, but Meghan Stasz, senior director for sustainability at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, expects most of its members to adopt these rules. An advisory committee of 20 U.S. companies spent a year researching and testing various phrases with consumer groups. It found phrases like "enjoy by," "display until" and "use or freeze by" were vague.

"Companies are using a phrase and a date, for the most part, now on their packaging. So this isn't actually asking companies to add anything," Stasz said. "It is asking them to streamline the language that they are using."

The trade groups have notified all of its members and is reaching out to other associations to try to persuade nonmembers to do the same thing. They are encouraging food manufacturers to transition their labels by the summer of 2018.

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767