(AP) – As awareness of the problem of food waste grows around the world, one culprit is attracting particular attention: “best before” labels.
Manufacturers have used the labels for decades to gauge maximum freshness. Unlike “Use By” labels found on perishable foods like meat and dairy, “Best Before” labels have nothing to do with safety and can encourage consumers to throw out foods that are perfectly fine are.
“They read these dates and then assume it’s bad, they can’t eat them and throw them away, even though those dates don’t really mean they’re not edible or they’re not nutritious or tasty yet,” he told Patty Apple, manager at Food Shift, a nonprofit in Alameda, California that collects and reuses expired or imperfect foods.
To address the problem, major UK chains such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have recently removed best-before date labels from pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a revision of its labeling laws by the end of this year; consideration is being given to abolishing “best before” labels altogether.
There is no similar push in the US to abolish “best before” labels. But there is growing momentum to standardize the language on date labels to educate shoppers about food waste, including a push from major grocers and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress.
“I think there’s been a tremendous increase in support for it,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.
The United Nations estimates that 17% of global food production is wasted every year; Most of this comes from households. In the US, according to ReFED, up to 35% of available food goes uneaten. That adds up to a lot of wasted energy — including water, land, and labor that goes into food production — and higher greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food ends up in landfills.
There are many reasons why food is wasted, from large portion sizes to customer rejection of imperfect products. But ReFED estimates that 7% of US food waste – or 4 million tons annually – is due to consumer confusion over “best before” labels.
Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to address consumer concerns about product freshness. There are no federal regulations governing them, and manufacturers are free to dictate when they think their products will taste best. Only infant formula is required to have a use by date in the US
As of 2019, the Food and Drug Administration — which regulates about 80% of groceries in the US — has recommended manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishables, based on surveys showing that consumers understand these phrases.
But the effort is voluntary, and the language on the labels continues to vary widely, from “sell until” to “enjoy until” to “freshest before.” A survey released in June by University of Maryland researchers found that at least 50 different date labels are in use on US grocery shelves, and customers are common.
“Most people think if they say ‘sell by’, ‘best before’ or ‘expiry date’ they’re not edible. That’s actually not correct,” said Richard Lipsit, who owns a grocery outlet store in Pleasanton, California, that specializes in discount groceries.
According to Lipsit, milk can be safely consumed up to a week after its use-by date. Gunders said canned goods and many other packaged foods are safe to eat years past their sell-by date. The FDA recommends consumers look for changes in color, consistency, or texture to determine if food is safe to eat.
“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of spoilage when food is past its edible point,” Gunders said. “We lost faith in those senses and we replaced it with faith in that data.”
Some UK grocery chains are actively encouraging customers to use their senses. Morrisons removed the “use by” dates from most store-brand milk in January, replacing them with a “best before” label. Co-op, another grocery chain, has done the same with its own-brand yogurts.
It’s a change that some buyers support. Ellie Spanswick, a social media marketer in Falmouth, England, buys produce, eggs and other groceries from farm stalls and local shops when she can. The food doesn’t have labels, she said, but it’s easy to tell it’s fresh.
“The last thing we should do is waste more food and money because it has a label telling us it’s no longer good to eat,” Spanswick said.
But not everyone agrees. London-based Ana Wetrov, who runs a home improvement business with her husband, worries that without labels, staff may not know which items should be removed from the shelves. She recently bought a pineapple and only realized after she cut it that it was rotten in the middle.
“We’ve had data on these packages for the last 20 years or so. Why fix it if it’s not broken?” said Wetrov.
Some US chains – including Walmart – have switched their trademarks to standardized “best if used by” and “use by” labels. The Consumer Brands Association — which represents big food companies like General Mills and Dole — also encourages members to use these labels.
“Consistency makes it much easier for our companies to manufacture products and keep prices lower,” said Katie Denis, the association’s vice president of communications.
In the absence of federal policy, states have stepped in with their own laws, frustrating food companies and grocers. For example, Florida and Nevada require sell-by dates for shellfish and dairy products, and Arizona requires sell-by or use-by dates for eggs, according to Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.
The confusion has prompted some companies, like Unilever, to support legislation currently in Congress that would standardize US date labels and ensure foods can be donated to rescue organizations even after their quality date. At least 20 states currently ban the sale or donation of food after the date on the label due to liability concerns, Lieb said.
Clearer labeling and donation rules could help nonprofits like Food Shift that train chefs using rescued food. It even makes dog treats from overripe bananas, reclaimed chicken fat and spent grains from a brewery, Apple said.
“We definitely need to focus more on these small measures, like For example, tackling use-by date labels, because while it’s such a tiny part of this whole food waste problem, it can be very powerful,” Apple said.
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