People would waste less food if rules for date labels were standardized, according to a recent study.
Food packages often contain information about “sell by” or “best before” dates, but these aren’t consistently regulated and confuse consumers, according to the report.
“There is no standard regulation for this, certainly not federally and across states it varies dramatically,” said Dana Gunders, project scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Center and a co-author of the study.
The report, produced by NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, found that consumers misinterpret date labels and toss edible food because they think it has “expired.”
Such unnecessary disposal contributes to the estimated 40 percent of U.S. food that gets wasted annually, said Gunders.
Part of the problem is that packages often have “sell by” dates that are meant to convey business-to-business information between manufacturers and retailers, she said.
“Sell by” dates are intended as an inventory tool for retailers to ensure that the product still has an adequate shelf life in the consumer’s fridge, but some consumers don’t realize it remains viable afterwards, she said.
Some manufacturers use labels like “enjoy by” or “best before,” but the standards for these dates vary by company, the report said.
To protect the reputation of their product, some manufacturers set the date early to ensure there’s minimal change in product quality, the report said. While the product may remain reasonably good after that date, some consumers will think they need to trash it.
The first step toward reducing such waste would be to develop a uniform, coherent standard for such dating information, said Gunders.
“Once we have that, we can educate consumers about what the dates really mean,” she said.
Such a standardized approach could be the entry point for broader reforms aimed at eliminating food waste, said Andrew Shakman, CEO of LeanPath, a company that helps institutions reduce waste.
“There’s an opportunity to move from that to other policy discussions,” he said. “It may be this conversation begets deeper conversations.”
Reducing food waste throughout the supply chain is often more intractable than standardizing date labels.
Farmers, for example, often plant more produce than they’re contractually required to grow to hedge against weather or disease disruptions, said Gunders.
In such situations, it may be more economically sensible to plow the crop under rather than harvest it, she said.
“We need to find secondary markets that get these products used but don’t have negative effects on their business,” Gunders said.
Similarly, retailers will stock shelves with more fresh apples than they can sell, knowing that people value presentation and won’t buy the last apple on the shelf, said Shakman.
Government incentives may be needed to put excess crops to better use, he said. “There are circumstances where the cost of waste is not high enough to change behavior.”