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:
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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