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

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While many people place a lot of confidence in food date labels, the labeling system is, in fact, an ad-hoc system with no oversight and little consistency. The labels are not federally regulated and can vary from state to state. Despite what most people think, the labels don’t communicate whether a product has spoiled. “Use by” and “best before” are just suggestions determined by the manufacturer to indicate when food is at its peak quality. “Sell by” is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the grocery store should no longer sell the product. There is no uniform criteria for any of those terms.

Dr. Ted Labuza has been working on shelf life testing since the 1970s. He says 65 percent of consumers sort through items at the store to locate the “freshest” product based on the date stamp. “That is no guarantee of safety or quality,” he warns. “The newer product could have been sitting on a loading dock for 10 hours.”

According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, confusion about date labels leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. This habit isn’t cheap: Americans annually spend between $1,365 and $2,275 per household of four on food they never eat. A study in the United Kingdom estimated that 20 percent of food wasted in British households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. The new NRDC report also warns that date labels may fuel a false sense of security when it comes to food safety. Date labels “may be encouraging consumers to ignore the more relevant risk factors affecting food safety, including the importance of time and temperature control along the distribution chain.”

The confusion also costs retailers money. A 2001 study estimated that each year $900 million worth of inventory was removed from the supply chain due to date code expiration and identified the lack of standardization around date coding as one of the factors driving that loss. A survey of grocery store workers found that even some employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates.

The problem has trickled down to efforts to recover and redistribute food. Anti-hunger organizations around the country often make use of expired or soon-to-expire items. Yet confusion around date labels leads to food unnecessarily being tossed out instead of distributed to people in need. According to the NRDC report, experts in food recovery and food waste say there is widespread confusion among anti-hunger program administrators over the meaning of various date labels. Food safety officers working with anti-hunger organizations “must consequently spend considerable time and effort educating workers about the date labeling system, and those workers must in turn educate clients and end-users when they express concerns or uncertainty about the products they are receiving.”

Each of us has a role to play in reducing food waste and its horrible impacts. This involves learning how to reduce your waste, understanding date labeling and sharing this knowledge with family, colleagues and friends. According to Labuza, storage temperature is the main factor determining food safety, rather than the amount of time that has passed since the product’s creation. Labuza recommends keeping refrigerators at 40 degrees or less (he keeps his at 34), and the NRDC has put together this guide to help you understand how to more effectively use your refrigerator.

The Dating Game report has a few recommendations for industry and government:

  1. Make sell by dates invisible to consumers. These dates are meant to be for business-to-business communication and yet they are confused as safety dates.
  2. Develop reliable, standardized labeling that clearly distinguishes between safety and quality.
  3. Remove dates from non-perishables. Where safety is not a concern, this would encourage people to make judgments about freshness and quality by actively investigating the food instead of relying on an industry-provided label.
  4. Use labels as an opportunity to educate consumers on safe food handling. For example, packaging could include “freeze by” dates to help raise awareness of the benefits of freezing food to extend shelf life.
  5. Retailers can sell past-date products at a discount. This gives thrifty shoppers the option of overlooking the quality standards indicated by a date label in exchange for a reduction in price.
  6. Governments should conduct public education campaigns to educate consumers on the meaning of date labels, proper food handling and ways to determine when food is safe to eat.

Brands and retailers have an opportunity to demonstrate their concern for the environment and the health and finances of their customers by taking action to re-educate shoppers about food safety and labeling. To achieve lasting change, we need to push Congress and federal agencies to change these inconsistent and confusing rules. Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) has submitted the Food Freshness Disclosure Act to “help establish a consistent food dating system in the United States and protect American consumers.” Emily Broad Leib, one of the authors of the “Dating Game,” says consumers should ask their representatives to sign onto the bill and help push it through to passage.

“Creating a meaningful, standardized system is a crucial way to reduce food and resource waste, save money for consumers who are watching their wallets (particularly in these economic times), and actually improve safety for consumers,” Leib says.

This post was originally published in Earth Island Journal

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121 comments

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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

ty

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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