Food Waste: Ripe with Problems

Have you ever brought home fresh produce, placed it in your fridge, only to forget about it until a week later, and then, like an archaeologist discovering an ancient artifact, you dig it out and notice something fuzzy growing on it? We’ve all been there. It’s unnerving to have to throw away an entire pack of unopened strawberries because they got lost in the depths of the fridge. Unfortunately, this is the reality for about a third of the food in the US.

Approximately 30-40% of the food in the US is wasted. That translates to approximately $218 billion worth of food thrown away every year; and that’s just in the US. Wasted food also contributes to about 8% of the global emissions. Monetarily, and environmentally, it makes sense for consumers to reconsider their spending and consumption habits regarding food.

Food is both wasted and lost at each stage of the supply chain. It is typically lost at the production and distribution stages, and it is typically wasted at the retail, household, and food service level. While each stage has its own issues, 21% of the total food supply is wasted at the consumer level, and this loss typically has to do with consumer behavior.

One key driver of consumer food waste is the misconception with date labeling. Roughly 20% of household food waste comes from the confusion over the dates stamped on the food packaging.

Food Labeling: The Pros and Cons

Food labeling is an important step to keeping consumers healthy and safe. From ingredient lists to expiration dates, labels can inform the consumer on what’s in the food they’re purchasing and the quality of the item. However, these labels are not always intuitive, especially those regarding date labeling.

At the federal level, there is also ambiguity regarding food expiration dates. Product dating is not required, or regulated, by federal law, except for baby food and infant formula. It is up to the discretion of the manufacturer to add “use by”, “best before”, or “sell by” dates on food packaging. However, the meaning of these terms may vary by company since there is no standardized regulation for date labeling.

In fact, these “best if used by” claims only relate to the quality of the product. These labels are not necessarily saying that this food isn’t safe to eat; they’re simply the manufacturer’s suggestion for the item’s peak quality. Dates relate to quality, not food safety; and this is where it gets confusing for consumers. This misinterpretation of dates often results in food being discarded, when in actuality, it might have been perfectly safe to eat.

 

Standardizing Date Labels

This is where implementing standardized date labeling can make a difference. Without regulating product dates, there is no uniform system for manufacturers to follow, so each date you see means something else. And food science isn’t an exact science. It’s hard to say when exactly food will go bad. The peak quality of food will vary with each product, and even with each individual item, since the operation processes differ across manufacturers.

According to ReFED, a non-profit focused on reducing U.S. food waste, standardizing date labeling has the potential to divert 398,000 tons of food. It also could lead to a reduction of 1.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Economically, it makes sense for consumers to reconsider throwing away food based on the date stamped on a food item. Wasted food from date labels equates to roughly $29 billion of wasted consumer spending.

Regulating product date labeling across the US can save consumers money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and even make businesses more efficient.

Tips to Reduce Food Waste

Consumers have a large role to play in reducing food waste. Education on date labeling is a great place to start to reduce wasted food at home. Remember, expiration dates do not necessarily mean that food has expired, they typically mean that quality has reached its peak. Instead, it might be better to look at the color, consistency, and texture of a food item if you are concerned about eating it. Be smart about your food. If it’s moldy, or smells off, you should chuck it.

Other ways to reduce food waste at home:

  • Properly storing food is a great way to extend the “life” of a food item and can keep food fresh for longer.
  • When shopping at the store, make a list and stick to it so you don’t overbuy or purchase items you already might have at home.
  • Avoid buying products with a limited shelf life in bulk, like dairy or produce
  • Eat or freeze food items that are about to go bad
  • If you have extra non-perishable items, consider donating these to a local food pantry*
  • Composting foods that have gone bad, or even food scraps, is another great way to divert emissions from food that otherwise would have ended up in landfills.

*Due to COVID-19, food pantries are not currently accepting donations.

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