Reducing food waste starts with clarifying expiration dates

By Michael Agnello


(Julian Bleecker/Daily Collegian)
(Julian Bleecker/Flickr)

Americans waste mass quantities of quality food. That much is known. But why does 40 percent of food in the United States (the equivalent of $165 billion per year) go uneaten? Is it just a side effect of large portion sizes and food surplus? The issue stems much deeper and can be attributed to confusion in regard to date labels on consumer packaging.

“Sell-By,” “Best Before,” “Use-By.” Oh, the ambiguity. The labels are typically associated with the expiration of products and can be misleading to consumers, equating to unnecessary and premature disposal. Though, with the exception of a ‘Sell-By’ date, which is for stores to follow, the dates offered on products are suggestions from manufacturers to consumers, a conservative guideline as to when a product will begin to lose its perfect, unopened quality. The date doesn’t mean that consumption of a product after what is labeled is unsafe; in fact, the USDA does not collaborate with manufacturers to set the dates. It is a subjective model for quality and brand assurance. Yet, because the source and meaning of the date is relatively unclear, it can be easy to assume that a federal agency regulating consumer safety is responsible. This misconception certainly contributes to the large percentage of food wasted in America, but it can be solved. This misconception certainly contributes to the large percentage of food wasted in America, but it can be solved.

If there were a more direct expression of the expiration of a product, as in an actual expiration date, rather than a recommendation of quality, consumers could know more accurately when they can eat the product safely or whether the food should be disposed. In the U.K, a simple and logical approach to this problem has been provided. Department of Environment secretary Caroline Spelman stated that improved methods of communicating the expiration of products to consumers “will help households cut down on the £12 billion worth of good food that ends up in the bin.” To achieve clarity, the government guided manufacturers to update the labeling to be a binary system and only provide, “Use-By” and “Best Before.” The first indicates the final day a product can be safely consumed and the second determines when a product begins to lose its perfect quality, though it does not mean it cannot be consumed.

Meanwhile, in the U.S, the policy is in need of desperate application, as the Food Safety and Inspection Service agency in the USDA notes that “there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating.” Adoption of a policy similar to the U.K. would not require more government intervention. All that is needed is passage of a regulation to redefine the way food is labeled.

With a simplification of the label system and clarification of the dates, we as consumers can be more wary of the expiration of food, and the decision to throw away an item becomes less of a guess. In addition, consumers could experience significant savings, for wasting less food means avoiding buying more.

The epidemic of food waste in America is staggering considering that many regions of the world struggle with famine. As a result, we are often viewed as being ungrateful. But the element of confusion plays a central role in the issue.

Misinterpretation of food labels can inadvertently lead consumers to believe that a product has spoiled long before it becomes unsafe to eat.

Michael Agnello is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]