Food labels may be to blame for billions of dollars in wasted food in the United States annually.
Nearly 40 percent of food purchased at the grocery stores never makes it into the cook pot. Most of the entirely safe and perfectly edible products leap from pantry shelves straight into the trash can, according to a new report sponsored by the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The food labels study states that the primary cause of wasted grocery store products is due to the “inconsistent and incoherent” manner in which “sell by dates” are calculated. The food manufacturers reportedly decide the “best by,” “sell by,” or “use by” dates in relation to what the companies feel is the peak quality date – instead of a date the food can no longer by consumed.
“The lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state and local variability in date labeling rules, has led to a proliferation of diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices in the food industry,” the report says. “Such inconsistency exists on multiple levels, including whether manufacturers affix a date label in the first place, how they choose which label phrase to apply, varying meanings for the same phrase, and the wide range of methods by which the date on a product is determined.
“The result is that consumers cannot rely on the dates on food to consistently have the same meaning. This convoluted system is not achieving what date labeling was historically designed to do — provide indicators of freshness. Rather, this creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety. This unduly downplays the importance of more pertinent food safety indicators.”
A Food Marketing Institute survey found that nine out of every 10 Americans throw away grocery store purchases based solely on the food labels. If the misleading date stamps on food statistics are accurate, the average family throws away at least several hundred dollars’ worth of edible products each year.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be responsible for food safety, but with the exception of baby formula, food labels are left up to individual companies. Several state agencies mandate that food labels be placed on specific products, dairy in particular. But by and large, only baby formula food safety is required. In addition to the money lost from the family grocery budget, the discarded food is also wasting valuable natural resources and adding yet more waste to bloated landfills.
Sell by dates have been deemed extremely confusing to customers by the NRDC. The group feels that such dates offer zero guidance about how long the food actually can stay in the cupboard or refrigerator before it is too old to use. The NRDC suggest making such dates “invisible” to the consumer, since they only make sense to store owners. One of the food labeling suggestions also offered is the establishment of a “freeze by” and freezing information when applicable. The report included the idea of replacing the “best before” food label on shelf-stable foods with a “best within … days/months, years after opening.”
Some food advocacy groups are pushing for both state and federal government regulations to create a uniform food labeling system in the United States. The FixFoodDates.com website encourages shoppers to upload a photo of sell by (use by, or best by) labels onto the website in order to get food storage safety advice from “experts” and to garner the attention of manufacturers.
What do you think? Should the government get involved and set uniform standards, or is there a better solution?