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Are Food Expiration Date Labels Turning You into a Wasteful Person?

Are Food Expiration Date Labels Turning You into a Wasteful Person?
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Written by Dana Frasz

Words such as convoluted, confusing, inconsistent, ineffective, disorienting, ambiguous and dizzying are not terms you want to hear associated with a system you believe is designed to guarantee food safety. Yet those are the adjectives that a new report – “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America” – uses to describe the current date labeling regime in the United States. Published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, “The Dating Game” shows that a bewildering system of date labeling is a major driver of unnecessary food waste.

Date labeling was instituted in the 1970s as a way to give shoppers assurance that they were buying fresh food. But labeling hasn’t even achieved that modest goal, according to the report, which was released Wednesday. “Ironically, despite the original intention of increasing consumer knowledge about their food, date labeling has become a largely incoherent signaling device for consumers,” the report says. That incoherence is costly for shoppers and retailers, bad for the planet and could even be leading to increased health risk.

Each year, an obscene amount of food is wasted in the US and around the world – and confusing and inconsistent food date labels are making the matter worse. According to another NRDC report published last year, 40 percent of all the food produced in the US never gets eaten. That translates to wasted natural resources, wasted money and wasted nutrition.

Here’s a quick overview:

  • Each time food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing, processing, packaging and transporting that food is wasted, too. This means huge amounts of chemicals, energy, fertilizer, land and 25 percent of all freshwater in the United States used to produce food are all thrown away.
  • Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year in food, which costs $750 million annually just for disposal.
  • Most uneaten food rots in landfills, where it accounts for almost 25 percent of US methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is at least 56 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 and is a significant contributor to global warming.
  • Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food.

Look at all of the food wasted globally, and you’ll see that mismanagement of resources is a major contributor to climate change. According to a recent FAO report, the global carbon footprint of food produced but not eaten is the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of CO2 annually – which would make food waste the third largest contributor to climate change, behind the US and China.

Food waste happens for many complex reasons, people’s misinterpretation of date labels on foods being just one of them. But it might be one of the easiest food waste causes to fix. Dana Gunders, agriculture specialist at NRDC and one of the authors of the “Dating Game,” says: “Every entity around the world that has investigated food waste – the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United Nations and NRDC in last year’s report – have all highlighted reducing confusion around expiration dates as one of the key ‘low hanging fruit’ opportunities for reducing food waste. So, we set off to seize that opportunity starting with this report.”

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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7:30AM PDT on May 27, 2014

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

3:53AM PDT on Oct 10, 2013

The Chinese has a dish called "yat bun woh" which translates into "1st grade pot". It's a dish made from whatever leftover meats (usually after a festival or banquet) braised with mustard greens, tamarind and dried chilies. And it's one of my favourites!

2:29AM PDT on Oct 9, 2013

Thank you :)

7:57PM PDT on Sep 26, 2013


9:24AM PDT on Sep 26, 2013

Will keep those suggestions in mind.

8:45AM PDT on Sep 26, 2013

Being born in Europe just after the War, we were taught not to ever waste food..I don't heed expiration dates at all. Just follow my nose and eyes..
A wilted salad? No problem: It makes a delicious soup with other greens and a potato or rice, or a handful of oats and some herbs..
The same with carrots and other veggies..I can tell when milk is bad just by the look and smell. When you have leftovers, they can make a great snak the next day cooked with some shallots and other ingredients..The very famous quiche is a leftover dish..Be creative! All that is absolutely not edible anymore, goes into my compost..There should also be compost areas in all communities who would reuse all this compost for growing vegetables..My veggies are happier with my compost and I get surprised by the seeds that were in the compost and produce new veggies.

11:34PM PDT on Sep 25, 2013

I read an article like this last week. Now I do not "waste" food.

5:29PM PDT on Sep 25, 2013

Unless it is blatentlly bad we eat anything,we WORK for a living

5:33AM PDT on Sep 25, 2013

Good information, thanks.

2:31AM PDT on Sep 25, 2013

Thank you :)

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