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Confusing Food Expiration Labels Lead to Waste

Many of us check food packages for the expiration date before we buy them. Whether something reads “use by,” “sell by,” or “best before,” once the date arrives, it’s off to the trash because reaching the date means it’s spoiled. Or does it?

Did you know that Americans throw away nearly 40% of their food – often still-edible food – because of this one little stamp?

A study called The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic finds that these dates are misleading and contribute to excessive waste to the tune of $165 billion as a result of consumer confusion and a lack of standardization.

"The Dating Game" (Infographic)

The researchers cite a food industry survey that discovered nearly all Americans – more than 90% of us – throw away food before they need to because they don’t understand the date labels. While they see the date as a cutoff beyond which food is no longer safe to eat, the reality is that date labels are often geared to control food quality, not food safety.

For example, manufacturers use “sell-by” dates to help retailers manage inventory. The dates are designed to get stores to rotate stock by that time so that purchased food items will still have a shelf life after purchase.

“Nearly all Americans – more than 90% of us – throw away food before they need to because they don’t understand the date labels."

Those “best before” and “use by” dates? Researchers say that they aren’t a true deadline for when food goes bad; rather, they function as estimates of how long the food will be at top quality. So in spite of the dates on the labels, the products are very likely to be good beyond these dates.

All this wasted food makes up most of the solid trash in landfills, as nearly $900 million worth of “expired” food is discarded from the supply chain each year. And the average American household throws out up to $455 worth of food annually just because of misinterpreted date labels.

NRDC and Harvard’s researchers suggest part of the problem may be that Americans have become so far removed from their food sources that over time, they know less and less about the food they eat, especially how long it is “good” for. As a result, they rely more and more on date labels to tell them that food is still safe to eat.

Researchers also emphasize that state and federal regulations for expiration date labels are not uniform and unclear because the Food and Drug Administration allows food manufacturers to determine if they want to put on a date, choose which label category to apply, and decide what date they want to put on the package.

The study endorses a more standardized system that sets criteria for date-setting and clarifies the language used, so phrases like “safe if used by” can take the place of the misleading language currently used. It also suggests adding a “freeze-by” date to encourage consumers to freeze food for later consumption rather than wasting it.

Other recommendations include removing quality-related dates completely from non-perishable foods and the use of technology to reduce confusion, such as sell-by dates that are only visible to the retailer or smart labels that can identify food spoilage.

Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, notes, “We need a standardized, common-sense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent and piecemeal system we have today.”

The Bottom Line

This NRDC study is the latest in recent efforts to minimize food waste and confront the $750 billion global food waste problem. It aims to promote not just better practices in the food industry but also at home, while also educating us about what these confusing labels mean.

Food safety is, of course, a major concern for all of us, and in the absence of any real standards, we the consumers are encouraged to ignore the more relevant risk factors affecting food safety: the importance of time and temperature control.

The federal government provides detailed information about safe storage times for refrigerated and frozen foods, how to store eggs safely, and how long meat can stay fresh in the refrigerator.

When in doubt, check these resources. The more we know, the less we waste!

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