Ever wondered how accurate that “best by” date on your yogurt really is? You’re not alone. According to the NRDC, “All those dates on food products — sell by, use by, best before — almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food.” Confusion over those dates leads nine out of ten Americans to throw out food that is still good to eat.
In the United States, about 40 percent of our food goes to waste, and while not all of that is on the consumer side of things, there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of food that could still be consumed that’s destined for the garbage bin. Dealing with the same problem, the European Union is considering what to do about food expiration labels, maybe even getting rid of some of them.
89 million tons of food is wasted per year in Europe, a fact brought up in a letter from the Dutch and Swedish agriculture ministers encouraging the EU to loosen their rules. Specifically, they want products with a long shelf life (think: rice) to be exempt from the EU rules that currently require all packaged foods to bear a “best before” label. “Products, like rice, noodles, and coffee have nearly indefinite shelf life and the best before date only regards to quality instead of food security,” Sharon Dijksma, the Dutch Minister for Agriculture, told Civil Eats.
In response, the European Commission established a working group on food waste and it is expected to publish a report on its findings in late June.
Much like in the United States, confusion surrounding labels is a lead factor in food going to waste. According to Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, “only about 50 percent of people correctly understand the meaning of ‘best before.’” Dijksma estimates that about 15 percent of food is wasted because of that misunderstanding.
So what does “best before” mean? In the European Union, this refers to the quality of the food, like its taste and texture. The food is of its best quality up until that date, but afterwards it’s still safe to eat. In fact, retailers can still sell food after the “best before” date.
The problem in the United States is that it’s even more confusing. Unlike the EU, the labeling system is decentralized, and with no federal standards, there is a wide amount of discrepancy in food labeling throughout the entire food industry.
Americans could definitely benefit from some type of reform to food labeling. Consider that if we distributed 30 percent of all of the food lost in the United States, we could feed every food insecure American in their total diet. Now that’s a good argument, both socially and environmentally, for working on this issue.
Photo Credit: Till Westermayer