As awareness grows around the world of the problem of food waste, one culprit in particular is calling for scrutiny: “best before” labels.
Manufacturers have used labels for decades to estimate peak freshness. Unlike “use by” labels found on perishable foods such as meat and dairy, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety and can encourage consumers to throw out perfectly good food good to eat
“They read those dates and then assume it’s bad, that they can’t eat it and throw it away, when those dates don’t actually mean they’re not edible or still nutritious or tasty,” he said. Patty Apple, manager of Food Shift, an Alameda, Calif., nonprofit that collects and uses expired or imperfect food.
To tackle the problem, major UK chains such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer recently removed ‘best before’ labels from packaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a revamp of its labeling laws later this year; it is considering abolishing “best before” labels entirely.
In the US, there is no similar push to remove “best before” labels. But there’s a growing push to standardize language on date labels to help educate shoppers about food waste, including a push from major grocers and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress.
“I think the level of support for this has grown tremendously,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.
The United Nations estimates that 17% of global food production is wasted each year; the majority comes from households. In the US, up to 35% of available food is not eaten, ReFED says. This means a lot of wasted energy, including water, land and labor that goes into food production, and higher greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food is sent to landfills.
There are many reasons why food is wasted, from large portions to customer rejection of imperfect products. But ReFED estimates that 7 percent of U.S. food waste (or 4 million tons annually) is due to consumer confusion about “best before” labels.
Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to respond to consumer concerns about product freshness. There are no federal rules governing them, and manufacturers can determine when they think their products will taste best. Infant formula only needs to have an expiration date in the US
Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates about 80% of U.S. food, has recommended that manufacturers use “best if used by” labels for freshness and “use by ” for perishables, based on surveys that show consumers understand these. sentences.
But the effort is voluntary, and label language continues to vary widely, from “sold by” to “enjoyed by” to “freshest before.” A survey published in June by researchers at the University of Maryland found at least 50 different date labels used on U.S. grocery shelves and widespread confusion among customers.
“Most people think that if it says ‘sell by’ or ‘best by’ or ‘expiry date’ you can’t eat any of it. That’s not really accurate,” said Richard Lipsit, owner of a grocer in Pleasanton, California, specializing in discount food.
Lipsit said the milk can be safely consumed up to a week after the expiration date. Gunders said canned goods and many other packaged foods can be safely eaten for years past their expiration date. The FDA suggests that consumers look for changes in color, consistency, or texture to determine if foods are safe to eat.
“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of decay, when food is past its edible point,” Gunders said. “We’ve lost confidence in those senses and replaced it with confidence in those dates.”
Some grocery chains in the UK are actively encouraging customers to use their senses. Morrisons removed use-by dates from most store brand milk in January and replaced them with a “best before” label. Co-op, another grocery chain, did the same with its brand of yogurts.
It’s a change some buyers welcome. Ellie Spanswick, a social media marketer in Falmouth, England, buys produce, eggs and other groceries at local farm stands and shops when she can. The food doesn’t have labels, he said, but it’s easy to see that it’s fresh.
“The last thing we want to do is waste more food and money because it has a label that says it’s good to eat,” Spanswick said.
But not everyone agrees. Ana Wetrov, from London, who runs a home improvement business with her husband, worries that without labels, staff won’t know which items to take off the shelves. He recently bought a pineapple and only realized after cutting it that it was rotting in the middle.
“We’ve had dates on these packages for the last 20 years or so. Why fix it when it ain’t broke?” Wetrov said.
Some American chains, including Walmart, have changed their store brands to standardized “best if used by” and “use by” labels. The Consumer Brands Association, which represents major food companies such as General Mills and Dole, also encourages members to use these labels.
“The uniformity makes it much simpler for our companies to manufacture products and keep prices lower,” said Katie Denis, the association’s vice president of communications.
In the absence of federal policy, states have stepped in with their own laws, frustrating food companies and grocery stores. Florida and Nevada, for example, require “sell by” dates on seafood and dairy, and Arizona requires “best by” or “use by” dates on eggs, according to Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Policy Clinic and Food Law at Harvard. Faculty of Law
The confusion has led some companies, such as Unilever, to support legislation currently in Congress that would standardize US date labels and ensure that food could be donated to rescue organizations even after its best-before date. At least 20 states currently prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date on the label because of liability fears, Lieb said.
Clearer labeling and donation rules could help nonprofits like Food Shift, which trains chefs using salvaged food. It even makes dog treats out of overripe bananas, reclaimed chicken fat and spent grain from a brewer, Apple said.
“We definitely need to focus more on doing these small actions like addressing expiration date labels, because even though it’s such a small part of this whole food waste problem, it can be very impactful,” Apple said.