Waste Not, Want Not

Food is preventative medicine. Whole food supplements are preventative insurance. So why is so much of it going to waste when there are so many people in the world who need it?

“Are Food Expiration Date Labels Turning You into a Wasteful Person?”

By Dana Frasz

“Words such as convoluted, confusing, inconsistent, ineffective, disorienting,  ambiguous and dizzying are not terms you want to hear associated with a system  you believe is designed to guarantee food safety. Yet those are the adjectives  that a  new report – “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food  Waste in America” – uses to describe the current date labeling regime in the  United States. Published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the  Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, “The Dating Game” shows that a  bewildering system of date labeling is a major driver of unnecessary food  waste.

Date labeling was instituted in the 1970s as a way to give shoppers assurance  that they were buying fresh food. But labeling hasn’t even achieved that modest  goal, according to the report, which was released Wednesday. “Ironically,  despite the original intention of increasing consumer knowledge about their  food, date labeling has become a largely incoherent signaling device for  consumers,” the report says. That incoherence is costly for shoppers and  retailers, bad for the planet and could even be leading to increased health  risk.

Each year, an obscene amount of food is wasted in the US and around the world  – and confusing and inconsistent food date labels are making the matter worse.  According to another NRDC report published last year, 40 percent of all  the food produced in the US never gets eaten. That translates to wasted natural  resources, wasted money and wasted nutrition.

Here’s a quick overview:

  • Each time food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing,  processing, packaging and transporting that food is wasted, too. This means huge  amounts of chemicals, energy, fertilizer, land and 25 percent of all freshwater  in the United States used to produce food are all thrown away.
  • Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year in food,  which costs $750 million annually just for disposal.
  • Most uneaten food rots in landfills, where it accounts for almost 25 percent  of US methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is at  least 56 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 and is a significant contributor to global warming.
  • Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more  than 25 million Americans at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure  supply of food.

Look at all of the food wasted globally, and you’ll see that mismanagement of  resources is a major contributor to climate change. According to a recent FAO report, the global carbon footprint of food  produced but not eaten is the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of CO2 annually – which would make food waste the third largest contributor to climate  change, behind the US and China.

Food waste happens for many complex reasons, people’s misinterpretation of  date labels on foods being just one of them. But it might be one of the easiest  food waste causes to fix. Dana Gunders, agriculture specialist at NRDC and one  of the authors of the “Dating Game,” says: “Every entity around the world that  has investigated food waste – the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United  Nations and NRDC in last year’s report – have all highlighted reducing confusion  around expiration dates as one of the key ‘low hanging fruit’ opportunities for  reducing food waste. So, we set off to seize that opportunity starting with this  report.”

While many people place a lot of confidence in food date labels, the labeling  system is, in fact, an ad-hoc system with no oversight and little consistency.  The labels are not federally regulated and can vary from state to state. Despite  what most people think, the labels don’t communicate whether a product has  spoiled. “Use by” and “best before” are just suggestions determined by the  manufacturer to indicate when food is at its peak quality. “Sell by” is the  manufacturer’s suggestion for when the grocery store should no longer sell the  product. There is no uniform criteria for any of those terms.

Dr. Ted Labuza has been working on shelf life testing since the 1970s. He  says 65 percent of consumers sort through items at the store to locate the  “freshest” product based on the date stamp. “That is no guarantee of safety or  quality,” he warns. “The newer product could have been sitting on a loading dock  for 10 hours.”

According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, confusion about date  labels leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. This habit  isn’t cheap: Americans annually spend between $1,365 and $2,275 per household of  four on food they never eat. A study in the United Kingdom estimated that 20  percent of food wasted in British households is due to misinterpretation of date  labels. The new NRDC report also warns that date labels may fuel a false sense  of security when it comes to food safety. Date labels “may be encouraging  consumers to ignore the more relevant risk factors affecting food safety,  including the importance of time and temperature control along the distribution  chain.”

The confusion also costs retailers money. A 2001 study estimated that each  year $900 million worth of inventory was removed from the supply chain due to  date code expiration and identified the lack of standardization around date  coding as one of the factors driving that loss. A survey of grocery store  workers found that even some employees themselves do not distinguish between  different kinds of dates.

The problem has trickled down to efforts to recover and redistribute food.  Anti-hunger organizations around the country often make use of expired or  soon-to-expire items. Yet confusion around date labels leads to food  unnecessarily being tossed out instead of distributed to people in need.  According to the NRDC report, experts in food recovery and food waste say there  is widespread confusion among anti-hunger program administrators over the  meaning of various date labels. Food safety officers working with anti-hunger  organizations “must consequently spend considerable time and effort educating  workers about the date labeling system, and those workers must in turn educate  clients and end-users when they express concerns or uncertainty about the  products they are receiving.”

Each of us has a role to play in reducing food waste and its horrible  impacts. This involves learning how to reduce your waste, understanding date labeling and sharing  this knowledge with family, colleagues and friends. According to Labuza, storage  temperature is the main factor determining food safety, rather than the amount  of time that has passed since the product’s creation. Labuza recommends keeping  refrigerators at 40 degrees or less (he keeps his at 34), and the NRDC has put  together this guide to help you understand how to more effectively use  your refrigerator.

The Dating Game report has a few recommendations for industry and  government:

  1. Make sell by dates invisible to consumers. These dates are meant to be for  business-to-business communication and yet they are confused as safety  dates.
  2. Develop reliable, standardized labeling that clearly distinguishes between  safety and quality.
  3. Remove dates from non-perishables. Where safety is not a concern, this would  encourage people to make judgments about freshness and quality by actively  investigating the food instead of relying on an industry-provided label.
  4. Use labels as an opportunity to educate consumers on safe food handling. For  example, packaging could include “freeze by” dates to help raise awareness of  the benefits of freezing food to extend shelf life.
  5. Retailers can sell past-date products at a discount. This gives thrifty  shoppers the option of overlooking the quality standards indicated by a date  label in exchange for a reduction in price.
  6. Governments should conduct public education campaigns to educate consumers  on the meaning of date labels, proper food handling and ways to determine when  food is safe to eat.

Brands and retailers have an opportunity to demonstrate their concern for the  environment and the health and finances of their customers by taking action to  re-educate shoppers about food safety and labeling. To achieve lasting change,  we need to push Congress and federal agencies to change these inconsistent and  confusing rules. Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) has submitted the Food  Freshness Disclosure Act to “help establish a consistent food dating system  in the United States and protect American consumers.” Emily Broad Leib, one of  the authors of the “Dating Game,” says consumers should ask their  representatives to sign onto the bill and help push it through to passage.

“Creating a meaningful, standardized system is a crucial way to reduce food  and resource waste, save money for consumers who are watching their wallets  (particularly in these economic times), and actually improve safety for  consumers,” Leib says.”

This post was originally published in Earth  Island Journal

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