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Consumers share a huge part of the blame for food waste. But in defense of western households, they get very little help from expiration dates on the food they purchase, despite the highly sophisticated supply chains that depend on precision everywhere else.
How are consumers supposed to interpret the date on the package? Consumers’ typical response is to take no chances with disappointing sensory experiences or food poisoning and to jettison foods by, or even before, specified dates, without really understanding whether those items might have much more actual shelf life to go.
In a 2019 survey by Drexel University, 30% of U.S. consumers responded that they would throw away a food that had passed its “best before” date, 50% would discard food by its “use by” date, and 21% would toss food by its “sell by” date. Additionally, more than half of the respondents (58%) would throw away a food that appeared to be edible, but in their assessment “wasn’t worth the risk.” Only 35% of consumers worldwide said they fully understand the differences among date labels, in a recent Capgemini survey.
The problem backs up to retailers, who understand that foods may still be viable, but also know that consumers won’t trust an item on the shelf that’s close to the best-by date. So the store disposes of the foods knowing that they’re edible for at least another few days.
Of course, dating originates with manufacturers, who employ wildly different systems. They typically date products conservatively “because they want to make sure people eat food when it tastes bests,” not just before it’s literally no good, says Emily Broad Leib, founding director at Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. Such an approach also benefits companies, notes Barbara Bronstein, Houston food rescue organization founder, “since the package dates require shelf rotation, which means more product gets moved—either by selling it, donating it, or tossing it.”
Dates “are tied to food marketing as well,” says Rosemary Trout, a professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University. “There’s already a lot of information on the food package, and people are trying to sell these products. All that information is competition for what you put on the label. It’s difficult managing food marketing aspects with what’s helpful to consumers.”
Regulators also are complicit in this problem. “There are no federal laws that require dates or regulate them or restrict what they say,” Leib says. “And the United States is the only country where there is no federal law on date labels.” States have their own regulations, she says, which differ widely.
There are efforts in Congress to fix the situation. One bill, introduced in December 2021 by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA), would establish a dual label system reducing the available labeling language to two phrases: one quality date indicator and one discard date indicator. But the federal government at this point is hamstrung, Leib says, by a hot potato mentality among agencies about responsibility for best-by dating, in part because it’s more related to freshness and taste than to foodborne illness and safety.
Potential marketplace solutions include efforts by big retailers and CPG companies. Walmart found that food companies have been using about four dozen various date label schemes and has been pushing suppliers to standardize. And Unilever’s Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand has been explicitly pushing for federal legislation.
New technology attaches QR codes to foods so that consumers can use their mobile phones to get up-to-date information on expiration. There’s also the idea of making the best-by date dynamic or eliminating it altogether.
In the Netherlands, for instance, a major retail chain is testing technology provided by OneThird, a startup that has developed a method to predict the shelf life of produce in real time by combining an optical scanner with a large database and AI algorithms.
“Based on what we’ve measured at the grower or the distribution center, dates will be changed on packaging and will be closer to the real date of spoilage,” explains Marco Snikkers, OneThird’s CEO. “Sometimes they’ll be in the store for a shorter time, but consumers won’t have that negative experience. Sometimes they’ll stay longer in the store, and the retailer doesn’t have to throw them away.”
There’s an effort in the United Kingdom to do away with many dates altogether. London-based Marks & Spencer Group’s grocery business recently said it would scrap consumer-facing date labels across 300 of its fruit and vegetable lines but feature a code that store workers will use to assess when to take products off the shelf.
Food price inflation could give the whole process a nudge. “It’s a great time to say we really don’t want people to waste their food senselessly” because of poor dating information, Leib says. “If we have limited food dollars, we want to use them wisely.”
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