How to Stop Food Waste? Invisible ‘Sell By’ Dates on Labels

date label on food can

by | Sep 26, 2013

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date label on food canFood producers and retailers should make “sell by” dates on labels invisible to consumers and take other steps to prevent US consumers and businesses from needlessly trashing billions of pounds of food every year, according to report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

The report says the US’ confusing food expiration date labeling practices need to be standardized and clarified and says the labeling system is one factor leading to an estimated 160 billion pounds of food trashed in the US every year, making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.

The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America is a legal analysis of the federal and state laws related to date labels across all 50 states and gives recommendations for a new system for food date labeling.

Congress should legislate changes to date labels, which also need more oversight by the FDA and the USDA, the report says. But it also recommends food companies and retailers adopt changes voluntarily, such as invisible “sell by” dates, which the report says indicate business-to-business labeling information and are mistakenly interpreted as safety dates.

The report also says companies should establish a more uniform, easily understandable date label system that communicates clearly with consumers by using consistent, unambiguous language; clearly differentiating between safety- and quality-based dates; predictably locating the date on package; employing more transparent methods for selecting dates; and other changes to improve coherency. And it recommends increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels” that use technology to provide additional information on the product’s safety.

NRDC and Harvard Law say an estimated $900 million worth of expired food is removed from the supply chain every year. While not all of this is due to confusion, a casual survey of grocery store workers found that even employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates, the authors say.

The NRDC report is the latest in a host a recent efforts to keep food out of landfills. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report published earlier this month said if the $750 billion global food waste problem is to be tackled, food industry businesses need to improve supply-chain communication and develop better food harvest, storage and transportation processes.

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