More than $900 million in food is removed from the supply chain every year due to unregulated food labeling practices, according to a new study from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Further, because of a flawed dating system, over 40% of the food produced in the United States—worth $165 billion annually—is never eaten. Billions more are wasted on resources used to produce, ship and sell food.
“Americans use 80% of our water and half our land for agriculture—and yet we’re throwing away nearly half of what we produce with those precious resources,” wrote Peter Lehner, executive director of study co-author the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Americans waste 4% of our oil producing, transporting and packaging food that never gets eaten. Food is the single biggest item in our landfills.”
The problem is that, with the exception of baby food, the government does not regulate expiration labels on food. As a result, misunderstanding over expiration dates causes up to 90% of food waste, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute. The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have regulatory purview over food labels, but have left methodology up to the discretion of individual manufacturers. “It’s like the Wild West,” NRDC scientist Dana Gunders told Time magazine.
Indeed, the dates printed on packaged foods are meant to help retailers with store stock, denoting only the manufacturer’s estimated date of peak freshness. In fact, these dates are typically designed to ensure the products still have a shelf life after consumers purchase them by the printed date.
Yet, according to the study, most grocery store workers cannot distinguish between different kinds of dates, such as “sell by” or “best before.” While neither has regulated criteria, “sell by” is designed for stock control and “best before” or “use by” dates are intended for customers, based on manufacturer estimates of peak quality. Although the language varies, there are no binding federal regulations on terminology.
Arbitrary labeling adds to the burden faced by manufacturers as well. “Inconsistent date labeling policies and practices harm the interests of manufacturers and retailers by creating increased compliance burdens and food waste at the manufacturer/retail level,” the study’s authors wrote. And the average household will lose hundreds of dollars per year by trashing items they incorrectly assume have gone bad. But in fact, there is no dating system that indicates when food spoils or is unsafe.
Contrary to popular belief, foodborne illness comes from contamination, not spoilage. President of the Institute of Food Technologists John Ruff told NPR, “In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue.”
“This is about quality, not safety,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Education, the Harvard and NRDC researchers argue, is the first step toward improving the system. “We are fine with there being quality or freshness dates as long as it is clearly communicated to consumers, and they are educated about what that means,” Leib said.
The researchers also recommended that the government establish a reliable, consistent consumer-facing data system and clear, standard language for both quality-based and safety-based labels, then institute these best practices as guidelines for manufacturers. As “sell by” dates are for stock control, they also suggested making these labels invisible to consumers to avoid confusion. More food can be kept in the supply chain by removing quality-based dates on shelf-stable products and adding “freeze by” dates and instructions to raise awareness of the benefits of freezing food to extend shelf life.