A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard University Food Law and Policy Clinic examines how expiration dates on food labels — those “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” dates — leads to a colossal waste of food in the United States:
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. Misinterpretation of date labels is one of the key factors contributing to this waste.
Confusion over dates, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. For the average family of four, this could translate to several hundred dollars’ worth of food being thrown away every year. A senseless waste, when we’re all keeping a close eye on our household budgets, and when one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food.
Forget about the food that we waste after it gets to our plates — the food we don’t eat because we made too much, we were served too much at a restaurant, or what we don’t like to eat as leftovers. We’re talking about food that never gets off the shelves in stores or out of the bag or package at home! Food gets thrown out because, according to Alexandra Sifferlin, consumers don’t know what these expiration dates really mean:
Eggs, for example, can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase, even though the “use by” date is much earlier. A box of mac-and-cheese stamped with a “use by” date of March 2013 can still be enjoyed on March 2014, most likely with no noticeable changes in quality.
“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,” says study co- author Emily Broad Leib, the director of Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic. “There should be a standard date and wording that is used. This is about quality, not safety. You can make your own decision about whether a food still has an edible quality that’s acceptable to you.”
Read the recommendations from the report that should improve consumers’ understanding and lead to less food wasted here.
The NRDC also provides a helpful chart of “The Refrigerator Demystified” here.