Another Thing Millennials Say They Understand But Totally Don’t

It could be causing a lot of unnecessary waste.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

Kids these days. Seems like they don’t know what they don’t know.

When it comes to food safety, this might be especially true. People under 30 say they understand the country’s confusing food date labeling system, but many of them don’t correctly follow the guidance those labels are supposed to offer, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.

The survey asked people whether they know what the various date labels mean. (These dates are typically printed on food packages along with the words “sell by,” “use by,” “best before”, etc.) Nearly half of respondents under 30 said they understand what these labels mean “very well.” Only 34 percent of post-65 respondents expressed that much confidence in their knowledge of date labels.

But here’s the rub. Young people are more likely to throw away food that has passed the date on its label than older people (41 percent of young folks, compared to 17 percent for those over 65).

While people shouldn’t eat food that has gone bad, few of the date labels on foods indicate when something poses a threat to your health. Rather, these labels, which are set by manufacturers, not government regulators, most often tell consumers when food will lose some of its freshness.

“Dates on food labels refer to quality, rather than safety,” Marianne Gravely, a technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, told The Huffington Post. “There is a lot of variety in food labeling, but very few products have a date that indicates the product is unsafe.”

Many young people don’t seem to get this point. Respondents under 35 were divided just about 50-50 over whether expiration dates indicate quality or safety. Respondents over 65, on the other hand, overwhelmingly said they knew that date labels tell consumers when food will start to decline in quality.

Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

In general, it seems like most people have at least a basic grasp of the date labeling system. A majority of respondents of any age correctly said that date labels on food tend to indicate quality. And over 70 percent said they’ll go ahead and eat food that looks fresh, even if it’s past date.

But a relatively large proportion of people still don’t quite get date labels. A full third of respondents said they believe food is unsafe to eat after the date on the label has passed. And nearly a quarter said they always throw out food after it’s passed its printed date.

There’s clearly some confusion out there, and it’s likely leading to unnecessary waste, according to Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

“We’re starting to realize we only prioritize safety and we draw a halo around safety — then we end up throwing away food,” Broad Leib said in an earlier interview with HuffPost.

In addition, a surprising number of people give date labels a once-over before putting food in their basket. Over 80 percent of respondents said they usually check expiration dates on products before buying them. So even though a lot of people say they understand that date labels don’t tell them much about the food’s health risks, many still care what the labels say.

The survey ― which collected online responses from 1,000 people and controlled for race, age, gender, education, political ideology, geographic region and voter registration ― isn’t the final word on people’s food safety knowledge.

But it confirms, more or less, the findings of a similar, and widely cited, survey on date labels. And it adds an arrow to the quiver of those who support reform efforts, like a recent bill introduced in Congress, to make the country’s date labeling system clearer.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted July 6 through July 8 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls.You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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