A report from the National Resources Defense Council found that the US is losing up to 40% of food from farm to fork to landfill - much of which is being thrown away by consumers due to confusion over expiry codes. Another report published a year later—the highly publicized 'The Dating Game'—explored how less confusing expiry date labels could help reduce some of the losses.
And by “less confusing,” the sponsors and proponents of the bill mean using just one phrase instead of the plethora out there today, ranging from “best if used by,” which indicates a peak quality time frame, to “use by,” which implies a sense of urgency and may be taken as a safety issue.
“Most consumers aren’t aware that there is no federal standard for product dating, let alone that there is a difference between a quality date (i.e. “best if used by”) and an expiration or safety date,” Paul Bakus, President of Corporate Affairs at Nestlé, who supports the bill, told FoodNavigator-USA. “Setting a federal standard will eliminate the confusion that leads consumers to toss food that’s still safe and nutritious.”
Bakus was present when Blumenthal and Pingree announced the details of the legislation yesterday in Washington DC.
Working to find the best term
Also present at the press conference was Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Emily Broad Leib, who told FoodNavigator-USA that consumer education is the most important key to reduce food waste. “But right now it’s impossible to educate anyone because there’s no standardation,” she said.
Dates are put on voluntarily by manufacturers (only infant formula has a federally mandated date label rule), and the diverse terminology has confused state-level lawmakers. “Some states require food to be thrown away after the date, even when the date is really just a quality guide,” Leib added.
Experts from The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, together with the Natural Resources Defense Council, lent their expertise to the legislators during the bill’s preparation. “The bill requires the use of food date label terminology has gone through consumer perception surveys and has been identified as language that is the most clear and accurate to consumers,” a press release from Blumenthal’s office said.
“We released a study last week, a national survey where we asked consumers a little bit of what they think these labels mean, and we had them read six different labels and asked them what it means to them,” Leib said. “With ‘Best if used by’ [70%] of people believed it was a quality label, which was the highest, and [54%] of respondents said ‘expired on’ was related to safety, so there was pretty strong correlation already with that language.”
How manufacturers and retailers can help
According to Leib, once a labeling standard is put in place, it will be easier for education efforts to be conducted to further reduce confusion and ultimately food waste.
“The industry can play a big role, especially retailers putting this information in stores with end-cap displays or at checkout,” she said. “The challenge right now is we don’t want to tell people these labels are mostly about quality, because some brands have dates for safety.”
Bakus added that a standard can greatly benefit manufacturers: “As awareness of food waste’s impact increases, states may step in and create their own standards in the absence of a federal law. Having one consistent standard is better for consumers and better for business.”