Date Labeling Confusion Contributes to Food Waste

by | Jun 30, 2014

Food WasteFood products’ date labeling variations leads to confusion, which may cause financial loss for stores and manufacturers, and contribute to “significant” food waste, according to a Walmart-funded scientific review paper.

The paper is published in the July issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.

Date labeling variations contribute to misunderstanding in the marketplace regarding how the dates on labels relate to food quality and safety, the paper says.

The authors call for collaboration to address the challenges that food manufacturers, retailers, government officials, consumers and other stakeholders face as a result of the current date labeling situation. More specifically, they call for the following actions:

  • Alignment among the food industry to develop a more consistent or single best practices date-marking system that takes into consideration on-package storage instructions.
  • Revisit this issue among regulatory agencies. In some cases, US and international regulators have devoted excessive resources and inspectional focus on food quality date labeling at the retail level. Quality-based date labeling is not a critical food safety issue; thus, resources could be shifted to ensure that regulatory efforts are focused around more significant health and safety risks rather than on labeling concerns that have to do with food quality.
  • Provide clear, simple consumer direction on food quality and safety. Data show that many consumers do not understand the difference between a “use by” and “best before” date. Food waste behavior can be changed through education about the meaning of date labeling, the importance of temperature control and limited shelf life for some food products, food storage guidance and safe handling methods.
  • Conduct more research to evaluate and further develop indicator technologies (e.g., time and temperature monitoring devices) that could provide information relating to food product quality or safety. Technology enhancement and improvements along the supply chain to monitor temperature and storage information could help better gauge true shelf life and reduce food waste, particularly with respect to fresh produce.

The paper echoes a 2013 report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic that says food 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.

In the US, the Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS) estimated that in 2010 about 133 billion pounds of food, which is about a third (31 percent) of the 430 billion pounds of edible food available at the retail and consumer levels, was not eaten as a result of being wasted. This loss had an estimated $161.6 billion in retail value.

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