Food Wastes: Expiration Dates And Other Issues Related To Food Loss

“Destiny” is a fundamental tenet of Hinduism and, as a Hindu myself, I am a strong believer in the influence that this concept has upon our lives. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that the day after the submission of my first blog, “Food Loss in America,” to the Huffington Post, there was an article being released in the September issue of Consumer Reports trying to increase awareness for the very same problem.

The Consumer Reports Article, “Spoiler Alert: You’re Wasting 1 in 4 Bags of Groceries,” covers the epidemic of food waste and what each of us can do to minimize the impact it poses for the sustainability of our planet. In my opinion, this article is very well-researched and the truly simple solutions it puts forth should be dispersed to the point where it is made common knowledge. I have done extensive research on this topic and dedicated the last 25-30 years of my professional career attempting to advance this cause, and it was reaffirming to see that this article mentioned many of the same ideas that I included in my first blog. As I mentioned, I was completely unaware that Consumer Reports was even doing an article related to this and I was enthused to see that such a publication, with almost 8 million subscribers, is reporting on this grossly underreported problem.

I must stress that we are going to witness a dire food shortage crisis in the near future if we do not begin developing environmentally conscious habits to save our food (and subsequently, our water). In my initial blog, I introduced many ideas in the framework of “Systems Theory,” which states that an event or object is a result of a serious of interrelated steps. In other words, nothing in the universe exists completely independent or by itself. A picture is not just a picture. Rather, behind that picture is a seemingly endless list of underlying components. For example, if you take just one color you would need to understand the research that goes into the chemistry which makes it possible, the materials used in its manufacturing process, the various types of waste which result from that, etc. The same concept is applicable to the unnecessary waste of food. Not only is the food itself being wasted, but also things like the water used in producing it, the energy used to process it, and the waste from the material used to package it. The primary cause of food being wasted is because of misleading or poorly understood meaning of “expiry dates”, “sell by dates”. Of those who throw foods, 85 percent of people throw food away on or before expiry or sell by date.

I like to incorporate “Systems Theory” into my lesson plan and how I conduct the lectures for my courses. Instead of just teaching my students the fundamental concepts of chemistry, I also show them how these principles apply to our everyday life. I focus on the chemistry of the products that we use, the events and history that brought these products to us, and how they have influenced our lives for better or worse. I assign a variety of hands-on projects in order to accomplish this, and one of these assignments posed the question, “What does an Expiry date actually mean?” I have repeated this exercise over several years (10-15 years), involving hundreds of students, and the results are both consistent and baffling. My students came to the same conclusion as Consumer Reports, who claim that “the dates have nothing to do with how safe the food is”. Look up:  http://www.consumerreports.org/food/how-dated-food-labels-contribute-to-food-waste/.  And, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, 85 percent of us toss food out simply because of the expiry date so addressing this is a crucial step towards preventing this crisis. I am happy to report that Representative Chellie Pingree from Maine introduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016 (H.R. 5298) on May 19, 2016. However, this bill has merely been introduced to the House of Representatives and only a fraction of those actually receive Committee hearings, and, as we all know, there are many additional steps for the bill to become a law. Thus, while this is clearly a step in the right direction, we must not become complacent and believe that this problem is solved even if H.R. 5298 does end up passing. We must still devise a new method for assigning “Sell by” or “Best used by” dates for food products, which will not be a seamless process by any stretch of the imagination.

Confucius once said, “One who wants to move a mountain, begins my moving small stones.” The horn of a rhinoceros is a nothing but a bunch of thin hairs sticking together to make it strong enough to use for its own defense. Similarly, in my first blog, I referenced the story of Gulliver and the tiny Lilliputian people who came together in a unified effort to tie down a man many, many times bigger than them. Clearly the point I am trying to drive home is the power of many vs. the weakness of one. Though it is impossible for any one of us to tackle an issue of this scale, WE can come together through spreading knowledge and promoting the right actions to so that we may continue to thrive on this beautiful and extraordinary planet of ours. One thing we must always remember – we are not inheriting Earth from the generation before us, but we are borrowing it from our children. Each of our individual actions of throwing food away may seem insignificant, but to bring “Systems Theory” back into the equation, it all adds up. Out of all the food loss that occurs, 43 percent of it occurs within our homes and another 40 percent happens in supermarkets and restaurants where we purchase our food. Just a few weeks ago on August 4, Italy passed a set of laws encouraging and facilitating all supermarkets to give unsold food to the needy. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that the food currently wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people. I believe this could be the first domino in a chain of events that could solve this epidemic.

At the very least, I urge all of you to try to make you and those around you more conscious of your food disposal habits. Whether that simply means not throwing food away too early or it means giving unneeded food to those who cannot afford to feed themselves. Never think of it as “the meals I am saving have no influence in the grand scheme of things”, but rather think “if more people knew about this, then maybe 800 million people would not need to go hungry every day.”

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