Is your food really expired?
Show of hands: How many times have you looked at food that’s just past its expiration date and out of uncertainty simply tossed it? You’re in good company. According to a new report, more than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely throwing away food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety.
Because U.S. consumers and businesses needlessly trash billions of pounds of food each year due to America’s dizzying array of food expiration date labeling practices, the study, published in September by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, calls for new standards and clarifications.
“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busing because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said NRDC staff scientist Dana Gunders in a statement.
Labeling gets broken down into two categories for manufacturers: those that communicate to businesses and those for consumers. The problem is one is not easy to distinguish from the other, and neither indicates food’s safety.
Here’s how the study breaks down labeling language:
- “Sell by” dates: Intended for businesses and used for stock control. It indicates when a grocery store should stop selling products to make sure they still have shelf life after consumers buy them.
- “Best before” and “use by” dates: Intended for consumers, but they are often just a manufacturer’s estimate of the date after which food will no longer be at peak quality. It’s not, however, an accurate date of spoiling or an indication that food is not safe.
The study is the first report to analyze the complicated federal and state laws related to date labels across all 50 states and presents recommendations for a new system for food date labeling.
“We need a standardized, commonsense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent and piecemeal system we have today,” said lead author Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
“This comprehensive review provides a blueprint calling on the most influential date label enforcers—food industry actors and policymakers—to create and foster a better system that serves our health, pocketbooks and the environment,” Leib added.
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