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Survey Says – Confusion about Food Date Labels

By: Erin Biehl

True or false? “Use by,” “best before” and “sell by” dates are federally regulated food labels that indicate safety.

The answer is “False,” which surprised many shoppers at Baltimore’s Northeast Market last month. Fresh research into what contributes to consumer food waste suggests that the confusion may be nationwide.

Americans waste up to 40 percent of the food that is produced each year. Most of that waste occurs at the consumer and retail level. To spread awareness of America’s mounting food waste problem, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) food waste expert Roni Neff and I “talked trash” with shoppers at a local food market. (The event was part of the “Day at the Market” program, sponsored by the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Sciences). Although a few shoppers were well-informed about wasted food, many were surprised to learn that food date labels are not federally regulated, and most labels are not a good indicator of when a food is no longer safe to eat.

A new report* on wasted food and food labels echoes the stories we heard at the food market. “Consumer Perceptions of Date Labels: National Survey,” authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the CLF, and the National Consumers League, found that consumers commonly, and often incorrectly, rely on date labels to decide whether or not to throw away food at home.

Among the 1,029 American consumers surveyed, more than one third said they always discard food close to or past the date on the label, and 84 percent said they do so occasionally. The problem with this is this: in most cases, food date labels are set by food manufacturers or retailers to indicate freshness and peak quality of a food item, but not safety. Only a few food items—deli meat, for example—actually have an increased safety risk if eaten after the “use by” or “sell by” date. But because of this confusion, consumers are throwing away literally tons of good, safe food. At the same time, they might trust food that had been left out on the counter for hours because it is still within date.

A third of consumers surveyed in the report said they think food date labels are federally regulated and just 1 percent gave the technically correct answer that labels are federally regulated only for specific foods. Millennials (aged 18-34) were among the least informed consumers when it comes to date labeling knowledge. Members of this generation were more likely than other age groups to think date labels are safety indicators—and more likely to throw away food after the date label passes, whether or not the food is actually safe.

So why are shoppers so confused? For starters, date labels on food are not consistent across the nation. With the exception of infant formula, there currently are no federally regulated standards for the dates stores put on food packaging; so labels, and regulations for what to do with food after a “best by” or expiration date, vary by state.

Recognizing the need for standard labels to better inform consumers, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) announced yesterday at the National Consumers League’s 2016 Food Waste Summit that she and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will introduce a bill next week to federally regulate food date labels. (The legislation was announced earlier this year by Sen. Blumenthal.) This legislation, in combination with consumer education efforts like the NRDC and Ad Council’s Save the Food campaign and EPA’s Food Too Good to Waste toolkit, could be a step in the right direction toward tackling America’s food waste problem.

*The report, “Consumer Perceptions of Date Labels: National Survey,” is authored by Emily Broad Leib, Christina Rice, Roni Neff, Marie Spiker, Ali Schklair, and Sally Greenberg. Roni Neff of CLF and Marie Spiker, a CLF-Lerner Fellow, will also be leading a deeper analysis into the survey findings.


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