Survey Shows Date Labels Contribute to Food Waste

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A recent national survey—a collaborative effort between the National Consumer League, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future—reveals how consumer perception of date labels such as “Best by” or “Sell by” contributes to significant food waste.

According to the survey, 40% of food in the United States goes to waste, costing $218 billion from growth to disposal. Two-thirds of this is due to household food waste, which is often driven by consumer confusion about date labels. Many consumers believe food past the date on a label is unsafe to eat and therefore must be discarded, when in fact the date is not an indicator of safety and is not federally regulated. Many times, the food is still safe to eat.

Using a sample of 1,029 adults, researchers wanted to better understand how consumers perceive different date labels to feed a broader discussion of label date standardization across products. Currently, only baby formula is federally regulated. Results showed that consumers do, in fact, make decisions about discarding food based on date labels. Thirty-seven percent of respondents consistently discarded food on or past the label date and 84% did so at least occasionally. One third of respondents also falsely believed that labels were federally regulated.

The survey also tested the perception of terms used on date labels, including “Best by,” “Expires on,” “Sell by,” “Freshest by” and “Use by.” The term “Best by,” for example, was perceived as an indicator of food quality by 70% of respondents, while the term “Expires on” was perceived by 54% of respondents as an indicator of foods safety. Food safety concerns make consumers more likely to dispose of a product based on the date label, however, all of the above terms are currently only used as quality indicators. This misperception creates unnecessary waste.

According to the survey, younger consumers between 18 and 34 years of age are most likely to discard food by the label date, but it also depends on the food. Raw chicken was consistently across all age groups likely to always be discarded by label date while unopened canned goods and breakfast cereal didn’t concern people much. Because consumers often perceive date labels as indicators of food safety, standardized date labels and consumer education could help significantly reduce food waste.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine Online 5/20/2016