An analyses of the U.S. food date labeling system has concluded the system is basically worthless and misleading.
The examination was conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists.
The NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s report, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America” [pdf], details the confusion related to “best by,” “use by” and “best before” dates on food products.
According to the report: “The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.”
The report highlights that nine out of 10 Americans needlessly throw away food, which for a family of four, translates to several hundred dollars worth of food being thrown away annually when a record number of Americans are on Food Stamps.
Billions of pounds of food is thrown away every year due the confusion inherent in current food expiration date labeling practices, which the NRDC claims should be standardized and clarified. Misinterpretation of date labels is one of the key factors contributing to waste.
“Forty percent of the food we produce in this country never gets eaten. That’s nearly half our food, wasted — not just on our plates, but in our refrigerators and pantries, in our grocery stores and on our farms. Much of it perfectly good, edible food — worth $165 billion annually — gets tossed in the trash instead feeding someone who’s hungry.”
In order to better communicate with consumers, the NRDC recommends the following changes: Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer: “Sell by” dates generate confusion and offer consumers no useful guidance once they have brought their purchases home.
The following five recommendations on how to standardize and clarify date labels will help establish a more effective system of consumer-facing dates that consumers can understand and trust.
1) Establish standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels.
2) Include “freeze by” dates and freezing information where applicable.
3) Remove or replace quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products.
4) Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages.
5) Employ more transparent methods for selecting dates.
As a consumer, the NRDC suggests you too can start making changes. First, educate yourself on how best to handle and store food, including with this handy graphic that helps demystify your refrigerator.
Second, help them collect examples of confusing dates by uploading a photo, along with the product and brand name, and the NRDC will give you tips on how to know if it’s still good.