Food waste has reached record levels. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is thrown away. It happens at the farm, in transport, at supermarkets and in people’s homes. Last year, a study estimated that the average American family of four wastes $1,560 worth of food annually.
But there may be a simple solution to help solve the problem: clear expiration date labels. As I write in my final Smarter Food column, a new report argues that revising the convoluted system of date labels would be a simple and straightforward way to slash food waste.
“What we have now is an ineffective, ridiculous system that isn’t serving anyone,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the authors of the report, set to be released Wednesday. It costs manufacturers money. It costs consumers money. It leads us to throw food away unnecessarily.”
To solve the problem, the study, co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, suggests making sell-by dates invisible to the consumer. Those dates are designed to help retailers manage their stock; they offer no useful guidance once the consumer brings the food home. Instead, the authors recommend a uniform dating system with clear language. Wording such as “safe if used by” is clearer than “use by.” “Peak quality guaranteed before” is better than “best by.”
The report also suggests that dates should no longer be used on items that don’t deteriorate as much over time, such as chips, pretzels and beef jerky (which probably never goes bad). In its place, manufacturers might put the more useful “best within XX days of opening,” which would better guide consumers on how to judge the food’s freshness. The authors emphasized that any language should undergo consumer testing before being placed on packages.
What do you think? Should date-labels be changed?