Industry is tackling one of the biggest contributors to food waste — confusing expiration labels

Two big groups have agreed to overhaul expiration labels, which create confusion and add to food waste.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

Think about the food sitting in your refrigerator, or in your pantry, right now. Odds are, most of that food has an expiration label — something stamped with a “Best if used by” or “Best if eaten by” or even just a “Use by,” followed by a date.

But what do those labels actually mean? If yogurt is “best by” a certain date, is it off-limits just a day after? If eggs are labeled “sell by” a particular day, does that mean you should leave them on the shelf — or toss them?

In an effort to curb consumer confusion — and cut down on the food waste that results from consumers throwing away perfectly good food — two food manufacturer and retail associations announced on Wednesday that they had created a set of guidelines aimed at making date labeling easier for consumers to understand.

Under the guidelines, which are voluntary, food would either be labeled “Best if used by” or “Use by.” “Best if used by” would be used to communicate quality — the date by which the product is at peak quality, but after which, the product is still safe to eat. “Use by” would be used to communicate food safety — the date after which the product no long becomes safe to eat.

Food policy experts have warned for years that the current labeling system represents a confusing patchwork of industry preferences that fuel consumer confusion and contribute to unnecessary food waste.

A study conducted by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and the National Consumers League, which surveyed 1,000 American consumers, found that a more than a third of consumers consistently throw away food that is close to or past its labeled expiration date, despite the fact that there is no federally regulated standard for what these labels actually mean. Far from being a hard-and-fast cut-off date for food safety, expiration labels are mainly the manufacturers best guess for when the product is at peak quality — some food products can least a year or year and a half past their marked “expiration date.”

“Millions of Americans are tossing perfectly good food in the trash because they think it’s not safe to eat after the date on the package,” Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, said in a statement. “This is a critical step toward clearing up the confusion and stopping all of that food, money, water and energy from going to waste.”

Food waste is a huge problem in the United States — around 40 percent of the food produced in this country ends up in landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Last year, in an effort to curb food waste through legislation, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act, which would have set a national standard for expiration labels, and required labels to clearly distinguish between when food reaches peak quality, and when it becomes unsafe to eat.

The never got a vote, despite being introduced to the House floor in May of 2016. Still, Pingree — who introduced a slew of bills last year aimed at combating food waste — feels that the voluntary guidelines created by the two major industry groups are a step in the right direction.

“I appreciate the work of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute to develop a standard that distinguishes between when food is no longer safe to eat versus when it might not be at its peak flavor,” Pingree said in a press release. “This is an important step as we seek to standardize date labels. But the only way to fully resolve inconsistent state date labeling laws across the country is to set a national uniform system for date labeling, which is why I will soon be reintroducing my legislation to do so.”