Science: Faulty ‘best by’ dates drive up food waste

NutritionLabel_WomanReading_blogWhen it comes to judging if the food in your refrigerator is still safe to eat, many turn to the “best by,” or “use by” date stamps usually found on food packaging. Some experts are saying, however, these labels fail to communicate meaningful information and may be contributing to the huge environmental problem of food waste — estimated at 1.6 billion tons globally each year.

A new survey, released by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, found that more than a third of respondents usually or always throw away food that’s past its date label, and 84% of respondents reported doing so occasionally. The problem with this behavior, the article explains, is that date labels rarely indicate the actual safety of a food product — rather, they tend to reflect estimates of when the food will be at its peak quality or taste its best.

This is not only a problem for food security, it’s an environmental issue as well. In addition to the amount of land and water required to produce all the food that’s never used, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that the carbon footprint associated with wasted food worldwide each year is more than three billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Based on this information, a collaborative organization called ReFED, suggests that by coming up with a standardized system for date labeling, consumers could fight unnecessary food waste.

Currently, with the exception of baby formula, the date labels on food products are not federally regulated. According to the FDA, “the laws that the FDA administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. FDA does not require food firms to place ‘expired by,’ ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.”

It turns out, the topic of regulation is a source of confusion for the American public. The Harvard survey found that more than a third of respondents believed date labels are federally regulated, and another quarter of respondents said they weren’t sure. Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, explained in the article that this is a big deal because people can be more likely to follow the labels if they think they are mandated by the federal government.

However, the survey did suggest that the highest percentages of respondents considered the phrase “best if used by” an indicator of food quality and the phrase “expires on” as an indicator of food safety. So, Broad Leib and her colleagues are recommending these statements labels as the best choices to indicate food quality and food safety moving forward.

This idea is reflected in a new bill that calls for a federally regulated system for food date labeling. The bill would require the federal government to identify foods with a high risk of microbial contamination after a certain date — these would be stamped with an “expires on” label to indicate food safety. For other products where safety is not a concern, any dates included by the manufacturer would require the language “best if used by,” which the research shows is most likely to be taken as an indicator of quality, rather than safety.

Additionally, the bill would prevent states from prohibiting the sale or donation of food that has passed a “best if used by” date — a practice that’s currently used in 20 states. This would prevent retailers from being forced to waste food that’s still fit for consumption.

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