Focus on Food Waste: Product Label Date Dilemma

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40% of food in the US goes uneaten. This astonishing figure carries even more impact when you consider that food production accounts for 10% of the total US energy budget, 50% of US land use, and 80% of our fresh water consumption. Additionally, according to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households (including 32.8 million adults and 15.3 million children). Consider further that our discussion hasn’t yet ventured beyond our own country’s borders. The Rockefeller Foundation estimates that “one-third of the world’s available food either spoils or gets thrown away before it ever reaches a plate—that’s enough to feed everyone in the world for two months.”

 

A tag sealing a bag of hot dog buns displays a best before date of February 29.

A tag sealing a bag of hot dog buns displays a best before date of February 29. From original file by Bando26, CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

There are a multitude of reasons why food waste occurs along the entire supply chain from farm to kitchen, but one of the most confusing issues for consumers has been the lack of consistency and clarity surrounding dates printed on food packaging. We have all probably encountered at least one person who will not dare consume something beyond the “use by” or “sell by” date printed on its label for fear of food-borne illness. However, as the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service points out, these calendar dates are not actually associated with food safety. In fact, the only food product which is required by federal law to have a product date on its label is infant formula. And the “use-by” dates on formula packaging are there to ensure the product conveys the level of nutrition advertised on its label, and that the product’s consistency will still allow it to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple–not to prevent transmission of food-borne disease.

 

As stated on the USDA web site, the following types of “open” or printed calendar dates may appear on food labels. These dates are tied to peak quality, not food safety. And that level of quality is usually determined by a manufacturer or producer. Different manufacturers may have different ideas of what “peak quality” means.

  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale.
  • “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

Additionally, “Closed or coded dates” may appear as packing numbers for use by the manufacturer, primarily on canned foods. These would not be recognizable to a consumer as a calendar date, and they’re used to help manufacturers with rotation of stock and identifying products in case of a recall.

 

The perception that food products older than those stamped dates might somehow no longer be wholesome is the reason why so much perfectly useful food ends up in dumpster and trash cans. It’s why your local supermarket might offer deep discounts on items which have a fast approaching date stamped on them, and why so many retailers and organizations hesitate to donate items to food banks and pantries, despite a federal law that protects them from liability if someone becomes ill after consumption of an item donated in good faith. That law is called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act; you can read more about it, including the actual text of the legislation, on the Feeding America web site.

 

To be sure, food does go bad, and a smart consumer trusts his or her senses when it comes to such things. Simple cues, such as the smell, look, and feel of a foodstuff are much more informative about food safety than any calendar date stamped upon food packaging. The aforementioned USDA site includes some good guidelines related to actual safety. The Business Insider article “Expiration dates are bogus — here’s the best way to tell if a food’s gone bad,” also provides some useful tips. Other useful sites include StillTasty, EatByDate, and SaveTheFood.com.

 

In response to increased awareness related to food label date confusion, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced a bill earlier this year aimed at creating a uniform national date labeling system, with an eye toward greater clarity for consumers and companies, as well as waste reduction. You can read the text of the proposed Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, and track its progress, on Congress.gov. See also “Consumer Perceptions of Date Labels: National Survey.”

 

To learn more about other food waste related issues, check out the Huffington Post’s Reclaim project. To raise awareness of food waste issues among students and help K-12 schools and districts reduce and prevent food waste, check out ISTC’s Green Lunchroom Challenge.

About Joy Scrogum

Joy is a Sustainability Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has worked on developing & maintaining online resources for the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable since 2001. She also currently coordinates the Sustainable Electronics Initiative & works on Zero Waste Illinois projects, including the Illini Gadget Garage and the Green Lunchroom Challenge. Key past projects include coordinating the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, developing & teaching ENG 498 "Sustainable Technology: Environmental & Social Impacts of Innovations," & Greening Schools, which focused on making K-12 facilities & curricula more sustainable.
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