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Faces of Food Waste E06: Date Labels Confusion and Food Waste

20% of food waste at homes is believed to be a result of the confusion of consumers by the dates printed on food packages (Commissioner, O., 2019). How many of us fell into the mistake of throwing food out just because we saw the date expired on the food we were planning to eat?

Food is the largest category of waste in landfills, where it generates methane that contributes to global warming, and part of the reasons consumers and supermarkets waste food is a result of date label confusion.

Food date labeling began in the 1970s, when consumers began to see an increase in packaged foods, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s seminal study, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” (Emily Broad Leib, Dana Gunders, 2013).

Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20% of food waste in the home. That happens by the unclarity of labels found on food packages, such as “best if used by”, “use before,” “sell by,” “expires on,” and many more.

We see this number on the package and almost directly throw away the food in the fear of its safety of being consumed. We think it is spoiled after that date.

Generally, when Manufacturers apply date labels on packages, they do so at their own discretion and for different reasons. One of the reasons is to let the retailers and consumers be informed of the date up to which they can expect the food to retain its optimal flavour and desired quality. This applies to all except infant formula products which are required to have the “Use by” date, up to which the manufacturer confirms that the product contains the specific amount of each nutrient identified on the product label and the quality of the product itself is acceptable (Commissioner, O. 2019)

Besides this exception, manufacturers mainly are not required to add date labels on packaged food, and if they decide to do so, they do not need to obtain agency approval of the voluntary quality-based date labels or specify exactly how they came to decide on the date they’ve applied. However, they are prohibited from placing false or ambiguous information that can mislead the consumer. (Aspril, J., Health, J. B. S. of P. 2019)

Consumers don’t hesitate to throw away the food when they see that the date has already passed and don’t feel like it’s safe to eat even if the products haven’t changed in colour, consistency or texture. It’s avoided to be eaten simply by the reason of the printed date.

In a study published in February by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that 84% of the people surveyed discarded food on or near the package date “at least occasionally,” and 37 % replied they “always” or “usually” discard food near that date, in spite of the phrase surrounding the date. (Aspril, J., Health, J. B. S. of P. 2019)

“More than half of participants incorrectly thought that date labelling was federally regulated or reported being unsure,” the study said. So in most cases, there is a miscommunication that doesn’t clarify the correct information.

A big part of the problem of date labelling on package food is that it isn’t user friendly. There are many different labels that are not always consistent that lead to misunderstanding by consumers and hesitation. There isn’t yet a predefined phrase of date label that is consistent throughout categories of product that would potentially make it easier to specify and clear out any confusion of safety and quality of food.

The FDA strongly supports manufacturers’ use of the phrase “Best If Used By” when they choose to apply the quality date label. Different consumer research has shown that this specific phrase clarifies to consumers about the quality of food and not its safety, which in turn lead them to not throw away or discard the products after that date if stored correctly and properly.

In the absence of clear definitions and standards, food manufacturers apply date labels on food in whichever way they want, which sequentially leads to the confusion and misunderstanding that is happening until this day and which contributes to food waste.


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