The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The expiration dates on our food could be contributing to a huge environmental problem

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The date labels printed on the food we buy  — often accompanied by a “best by,” “use by” or even “expires on” stamp — are meant to provide useful advice about when a product is at its best. But some experts are saying these labels not only fail to communicate meaningful information to consumers — they may actually be contributing to a huge environmental problem by inadvertently encouraging people to throw out perfectly good food.

A new survey, released last week by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, found that more than a third of respondents usually or always throw away food that’s past its date label. And 84 percent of respondents reported doing so occasionally.

The problem with this behavior is that date labels rarely indicate the actual safety of a food product — rather, they tend to reflect estimates of when it will be at its peak quality or taste its best. This means that large volumes of safe food are being needlessly thrown away each year.

This is not only an obvious problem for food security — it’s a huge environmental issue each year. In addition to the amount of land and water required to produce all the food that’s never even used, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that the carbon footprint associated with wasted food worldwide each year is more than 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The FAO reported that about 1.6 billion tons of food go to waste globally each year, thanks to a variety of reasons at points all along the supply chain. In the U.S., research has suggested that as much as 40 percent of the nation’s food supply may end up wasted.  But a recent report published by a collaborative organization called ReFED — a group of businesses, nonprofits and other organizations that teamed up to research the nation’s food waste problem — suggests that coming up with a standardized system for date labeling is one major way to fight unnecessary food loss, with the possibility of diverting nearly 400,000 tons of wasted food each year.

Currently, with the exception of baby formula, the date labels on food products are not federally regulated. According to the FDA, “the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. FDA does not require food firms to place ‘expired by,’ ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.”

Whether date labels of any sort are required on food products, which products these are and whether the sale of these products is restricted in any way after these dates have passed is left up to the states, whose approaches can differ drastically from one another.

This is a source of confusion for the American public, it turns out. The Harvard survey found that more than a third of respondents believed date labels are federally regulated, and another quarter of them weren’t sure.

That’s a big deal, because people may be more likely to take these labels seriously if they believe they’re mandated by the federal government, said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and an assistant professor of law.

“If people think that they’re reading something that has standards regulated, then they think that it’s meaningful and communicating something to them,” she said.

But, in fact, even the language that’s used to accompany date labels varies wildly depending on the product and the manufacturer — and sometimes, dates appear with no explanation at all. The new survey suggests that a major problem with the lack of standardized language is that people are confused about what the labels actually mean. For instance, 42 percent of respondents thought the label “use by” was an indicator of food safety, while another 40 percent thought it referred to food quality.

The survey did suggest that the highest percentages of respondents considered the phrase “best if used by” an indicator of food quality and the phrase “expires on” as an indicator of food safety. So Broad Leib and her colleagues are recommending these labels as the best choices to indicate food quality and food safety, respectively, with the least amount of confusion.

It’s an idea that’s also reflected in a new bill just introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal *(D) of Connecticut, which calls for a federally regulated system for food date labeling. His Food Date Labeling Act was announced at a Wednesday press conference along with a companion bill introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D) of Maine.

The bill would require the federal government to identify foods with a high risk of microbial contamination after a certain date — these would be stamped with an “expires on” label to indicate food safety. For other products where safety is not a concern, any dates included by the manufacturer would require the language “best if used by,” which the research shows is most likely to be taken as an indicator of quality, rather than safety.

“The key purpose of the law is to ensure that consumers are provided consistent, accurate, reliable information,” Blumenthal said in an interview.

The bill also calls for education campaigns to ensure that consumers are informed about what the two labels mean — an idea that Broad Leib supports. “Since these dates have appeared on food for a while, if we want them to be meaningful we’re going to have to get the message out,” she said.

Additionally, the bill would prevent states from prohibiting the sale or donation of food that has passed a “best if used by” date — a practice that’s currently used in 20 states. This would prevent retailers from being forced to waste food that’s still fit for consumption.

“When Americans toss away so much food that should be consumable, and there are people who go hungry, I just thought this idea really made a lot of sense,” Blumenthal said, adding that “enabling more food to be donated is another key objective.”

Tackling date labels serves a variety of purposes, he said, by saving consumers money, bolstering the nation’s food security and addressing the many far-ranging environmental problems associated with producing more food than actually goes to use. Such a standardized system would not solve the nation’s food waste problem completely — but it might put a sizable dent in what’s increasingly recognized as a pernicious problem around the world.