Food waste begins with date labels

By Karen Hock, PhD Candidate in Public Health

Say you reached into your fridge for a carton of milk and the ‘Best by” date has just passed. Just to be safe, you throw it away. If this has ever happened to you, you’re not alone.

Unfortunately, if you rely solely on date labels to inform you when to discard your groceries, you may be wasting your food, money, and environmental resources.

Research suggests that nearly 25% of all food in the United States (US) is wasted. While food waste can happen at every stage of the supply chain – from farming to manufacturing and beyond – surprisingly, most food waste occurs in homes. Specifically, estimates suggest that consumers are throwing away 30 million tons of food each year, totaling around $160 billion, most of which ends up in landfills. 

Not only is the food uneaten, but the resources used to produce it, including water and land, are also wasted. Plus, food waste is a major contributor of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 7% of global emissions. While this number may seem small, food waste would represent the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases if it were considered a country.

What’s in a label?

A key reason for consumer food waste is misunderstanding date labels.

Date labels are not standardized on US food products (except for infant formula), which has led to different types of labels across states and producers. For example, some products can have a “Best by” label (indicating the last day the food will be at its highest quality), while others can list “Sell by” dates instead (indicating the last day the product should be sold in the store). However, as food may still be edible after the dates listed, consumers may be throwing away food unnecessarily.

The case for standardizing date labels

Over the past few years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and members of the consumer packaged goods industry have supported the use of a “Best If Used By” label to indicate peak quality of a food at the listed date, and that it can still be consumed after that date if there are no other signs of spoilage. In addition, the consumer packaged goods industry supports a “Use By” label on perishable foods as a marker of safety to indicate that a product should be used by the date listed and discarded afterwards.

Research suggests the American public welcomes the streamlined date labels. For instance, a poll by the Consumer Brands Association found that the “Best If Used By” and “Use By” labels would help consumers feel safer about what they eat and waste less food, in turn saving them money.

According to ReFED, a non-profit organization aimed at reducing food waste, standardized date labels may decrease food waste by 582,000 tons, water waste by over 160 billion gallons, and greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 3 million metric tons, while saving consumers nearly $1.8 billion each year.

However, consumer education regarding these two labels is needed to ensure their effectiveness, especially as they become more widespread in the marketplace. One recent study of nearly 2,600 American adults found that only around 45% and 25% of participants correctly identified the meaning of “Best If Used By” and “Use By” labels, respectively (although nearly 90% of participants thought they knew the correct meanings of both labels). After viewing educational messaging, the percentages of participants correctly identifying the meanings of the labels increased to 63% and 52%, respectively.

While standardized date labels may play an important role in helping to reduce waste, they provide only one clue to help consumers make decisions about their food. Individuals should still use their senses, whether it’s smell, sight, touch or taste, to determine the freshness of food kept after the “Best if Used By” date. So the next time the date on your milk passes, give it a look or smell to determine its freshness. Because the more information you can get about your food, the less likely you are to throw it away unnecessarily – benefiting both your wallet and the environment.

Peer-edited by Emily Matthew, BS Biology

Picture credit: Karen Hock

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