Food waste is one of the most devastating yet entirely preventable environmental and social scandals affecting America. While each stage of the food supply chain is in dire need of efficiency improvement, one area of particular focus is creating a clear, simple system to replace the current labyrinth of bizarre, confusing, and “outdated” system of date labels. To this end, we’ve started a petition calling on the CEOs of the six largest supermarkets in the U.S. to commit to create a system of date labels that does not confuse customers into wasting food.
Of the nearly $218 billion spent every year to grow, process and transport food that is never eaten in America, $29 billion is lost to the still-fresh, edible, and perfectly safe food that is thrown away over date label confusion. A recent survey revealed that over 90 percent of Americans throw out food based on unfound fears that it may have gone bad.
The USDA itself states: “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.” Food companies use an array of labels – such as “sell by,” “use by,” “best by,” and “expires on” which have different meanings depending on context, company, and state. Consumers are confused, and this confusion causes needless food waste.
“A recent survey revealed that over 90 percent of Americans throw out food based on unfound fears that it may have gone bad.”
In response to our petition, we received a formal statement from Walmart. They noted that they had asked their private brand suppliers to adopt a standardized date label for all foods that do not require date labels for safety reasons. They had previously conducted a survey of their and discovered 47 different ways foods were being date-labeled.
Forty-seven different labels ― all of which theoretically serve one purpose (letting consumers know if something is safe to eat). Are we surprised that some 90 percent of Americans throw away food out of unfounded fears that it may have gone bad, when date labels are this confusing?
Even the language we use to talk about date labels is flawed. When we as a society speak of “expiration dates,” we imply that these dates are all about food safety and that there is a sure-and-fast date after which the food has “expired.”
Most date label guidance is just the manufacturer’s best guess at when the product will be at its peak quality. Manufacturers are certainly not advising consumers on food safety. (Fun fact: the only food with date label guidance regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration is baby formula.) Can we blame consumers for being confused?
“When we as a society speak of 'expiration dates,' we imply that these dates are all about food safety and that there is a sure-and-fast date after which the food has 'expired.'”
This uncertainty causes a ridiculous waste of money, food and resources. As the seminal report by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and NRDC outlined, date label confusion leads to “considerable amounts of avoidable food waste, as the mistaken belief that past-date foods are categorically unsuitable for consumption causes consumers to discard food prematurely.”
While there are movements afoot in the public and government sector to enact federal legislation, we here at environmental non-profit Feedback are targeting the private sector to make changes from the top. An industry agreement to simplify date labels voluntarily is an important first step, acting as both a backstop to regulatory guidance and a step that paves the way to collaboration with health and food regulators, specifically at the FDA, EPA, and USDA. We hope to show that it is in the power of citizens and consumers to successfully call for policy change and hold industry accountable.
“It would be a sad irony if food businesses attempt to simplify date labels but do not do so in a coordinated fashion, thereby further muddying the waters for consumers.”
If top retailers said they wanted simpler date labels, their guidance would create a trickle-down effect sufficient to change the labeling policies of major manufacturers and most other retailers. As such, we have challenged the six largest grocers in America to work together and with their suppliers to create a date label system that doesn’t confuse customers into throwing away food unnecessarily. You can read more about this request and sign the petition, here.
Encouragingly, some supermarkets ― Walmart is one example ― are already making progress on this issue. The next step is to achieve industry-wide uniformity. It would be a sad irony if food businesses attempt to simplify date labels but do not do so in a coordinated fashion, thereby further muddying the waters for consumers. There should be one standardized approach, and it should be the rule not the exception.
Date label standardization will save customers money, keep people safer by highlighting clearly any foods that do have a safety risk, reduce loss at supermarkets, and help food redistribution organizations capture a greater proportion of surplus food. In our campaigning over the past decade, I have rarely seen such a clear no-regrets policy win.