Dated and Wasted: The Expiration of Expiration Dates
The United States is a land of waste, particularly food waste. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Loss Project, Americans are inclined to discard more than 25% (approximately 25.9 million tons) of all the food produced domestically (some estimates are significantly higher topping off at about 50%). This is a lot of food – far more than the £12bn of food discarded in the UK, but the UK (often light years ahead of us on food legislation) are attempting to do something about it. The British Government is advising that all national food manufacturing and packaging remove all sell-by and display-until labels relating to food stocks, and only keep the use-by dates, in an effort to curb domestic food waste. Instead they are opting to promote education over indiscriminate disposal, and give consumers more of a firm footing when it comes to understanding what is worth keeping and what is worth tossing.
Some critics of the existing food labeling systems, both here in the U.S. and over in the U.K., believe that because there does not exist one definitive key or system for understanding the shelf-life of packaged and processed foods, that people err on the side of safety and choose to fill their garbage cans with foods that are perfectly safe, and enjoyable, to consume. “There are products that have several dates on them; use by, best before. Sometimes it says ‘display until’, which is not relevant at all by the time it’s sitting in your fridge,” UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told BBC Radio 4′s Today program. While the British government has yet to implement a clear-cut mandate (at this point the nixing of sell-by dates is only suggested) the government is clear that chances should not be taken with foods that spoil easily and risk carrying serious pathogens (e.g. soft cheeses, smoked meats, etc), and there still remains a devoted reliance on the use-by dates (rather than the sell-by dates).
So clarity and curbing waste are the intended goals for this proposed change. No clear idea yet of how much food and much money this may save the UK, but it stands to reason that by limiting the confusion (and withdrawing the sell-by info) that less food products will go to waste. But does this move seem cynical to anyone? Does the omission of information, in an attempt to cut down on consumer confusion, seem like an undermining of the consumer’s ability to make a truly informed decision? Should the emphasis be on education rather than simplification? How do you think this issue of food safety and food waste be handled in the United States?