The Dating Game: Demystifying Food Expiration Dates to Reduce Food Waste

By Emily Broad Leib, Director, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic


It’s lunchtime and you find your salad dressing in the back of the fridge. The label says “Use by 10/01/13.” You throw it in the trash, feeling guilty that you spent $5 on it and only used half. But you don’t want to get food-poisoning… Sound familiar?

As it turns out, that salad dressing, and tons of other food thrown away at or near its expiration date, was probably still perfectly safe to eat. This is the main takeaway of The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, recently published by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.dating_game_title.jpg

The news that expiration dates on food are misleading, inconsistent, and unrelated to food safety has struck a chord with many Americans. We are concerned about the impact of food waste on the environment, on food security, and on our pocketbooks. In the U.S., an estimated 40% of food goes uneaten, and the average American household loses $1560 annually by purchasing food they end up throwing away. These numbers are even more troubling when we consider that 1 in 6 Americans do not have enough to eat.

This is not just a U.S. problem. Around the globe, governments and citizens are seeking ways to decrease food waste. In 2011, the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued guidance to help industry standardize and clarify date labels for U.K. consumers in order to decrease food waste. The Untied Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and Messe Düsseldorf have partnered to create the Think.Eat.Save Campaign, which seeks to raise awareness and incite action to address global food waste (an estimated 1.3 billion tons each year).

Expiration date confusion is a major driver of waste. In the U.S., date labels such as “sell by”, “use by”, and “best before” are largely undefined in law. With the exception of infant formula, date labels are not regulated by the federal government. Unfortunately, the lack of federal law has led states to fill the void with inconsistent regulations. Further, the dates are not indicators of safety, but are instead manufacturers’ best guesses of peak quality. No wonder consumers are confused!                             

Our report sets out a bold plan. Perfectly good food could be saved from the landfill if there was a coherent, reliable, and uniform date labeling system. This system should use unambiguous language and clearly distinguish between quality-based and safety-based date labels. For the vast majority of dates, which are meant to indicate only quality, that should be clear. For the small number of foods where the date might be linked to safety, that should be completely apparent.

In addition, “sell by” dates should be invisible to the consumer. Manufacturers provide these dates as guidance to the retailer, indicating the last date on which a product should be sold so that the customer has a reasonable amount of time to consume it. Yet, according to an industry report, 90% of consumers say they throw food away on this date because of safety concerns.

Infographic Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council

So are you upset about wasting all that salad dressing? Here’s what you can do:

  • Educate yourself and inform your friends and family about this misleading system;
  • Remember that dates are not indicators of food safety – food safety experts cannot pinpoint a single instance of food poisoning linked to eating food past its date;
  • Smell or taste your food to determine if it is good to eat – you are the best expert on whether that food is still an acceptable quality;
  • Push Congress, government agencies, and food companies to improve the system.

Join us in decreasing food waste today, World Food Day 2013, to save our valuable environmental and economic resources from heading into the trash and landfills.

Check out The Dating Game co-authors on these national media outlets:

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followed this page 2013-10-17 09:15:29 -0400
published this page in Learn 2013-10-16 10:40:30 -0400