Imagine going to the grocery store every week, loading up the cart with an array of delicious products, packing it all up into three bags, hauling it home, and then promptly tossing one of the bags into the garbage bin. It sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s effectively what that average American does. In the U.S. the typical household wastes about one fifth to one third of the food they buy. Household waste is one of the largest single components of the overall food waste problem. In fact, a representative home throws out around $1,800 worth of food per year. The impact of all this waste is profound. Food that isn’t eaten accounts for nearly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 25% of the freshwater usage in the United States, and the wasted food in North America alone could feed about 260 million people. Most of the food waste at home can be attributed to two primary factors: spoilage and over-preparing. Spoilage, or food going bad, accounts for about two thirds of the problem, while over-preparing, which is mainly cooking and serving too much, accounts for the remaining one third of the issue. But what is the spoilage problem is way overblown? What if all that food being tossed out isn’t actually bad? Unfortunately, this is almost certainly the case. One of the primary causes: Deceptive Food Labels.
The Deceptive Food Label Challenge
When we peruse the store shelves we’re bombarded with different types of date labels. When Walmart did an internal audit they found 47 different types of date labels on their own products alone. A recent trip to the grocery store in the Northeast United States turned up its fair share of different versions as well. “Best if used by,” “Use by,” and “Sell by” are the most common forms of what is commonly regarded as the “Expiration date.” Those dates are generally interpreted as the dates after which we should no longer consume the food product. In fact, 86% of consumers report that they usually throw food away based on this date. This simply seems to be common knowledge. It’s similar to knowing that eating Turkey on Thanksgiving causes one to become drowsy, that Twinkies will stay good for nearly a lifetime, or that seeds are the spiciest part of chilly peppers. There’s only one issue though, none of these things are actually true.
Dates on food labels are not actually regulated by the federal government. They generally refer to the manufacturer’s best guess of when the quality of the food product may begin to change, but have little to no relationship with food safety. The only product with a federally regulated date on it is baby formula. So if we’re throwing away about one in three bags of the groceries we buy and much of that may be unnecessary, how do we address this challenge?
The Simple Solution
There’s been a growing movement in the U.S. for some time now to simplify the whole system and move toward more standardized food labels with standardized meanings. The FDA has advocated for the use of “Best if used by” label to indicate when a product is at optimal quality for some time now. That still leaves us somewhat in the lurch though - how do we know when something is safe to eat? Because there are so many different variables in play it’s probably impossible to provide a definitive date that gets printed on each product, so most experts advise us to go back to basics - follow proper food safety practices and use your senses. That’s exactly what Emily Broad Leib recommends. She’s the founder of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School and a prominent food expiration date and food law expert. The common sense advice seems to be catching on more broadly as well, with dozens of major brands including Nestle, Shredded Wheat, and Cheerios signing onto the “'Look, Smell, Taste, Don't Waste'” campaign, promising to update their packaging telling customers to do just that. So next time you’re about to toss something out because it’s past the date printed on the label, take a second to recall what the date really means and exercise your senses. That deceptive food label date isn’t all it seems. Given the huge impact food waste has, you’ll be doing something that’s good for both the world and your wallet.
PS: Check out this handy page from the USDA explaining more about Food