Think before you toss: New food labels to reduce U.S. food waste

SS_womanreadinglabelExpiration labels on grocery items have been causing consumers confusion for years. Does “best by this date” mean you shouldn’t drink that milk, even though it still smells fine? What about those canned beans whose “use by” date passed two months ago —can they be your next side dish, or are they a botulism case waiting to happen?

An unfortunate side effect of that confusion is that many viable foods are simply thrown out because we don’t wish to take chances with our health. Fortunately, though, a solution to that problem is being supported by both grocery retailers and manufacturers.

New standards that more clearly indicate on food packaging whether the food remains safe to eat via simpler expiration dates are expected to be in place nationwide by summer 2018. The voluntary initiative by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is expected to virtually eliminate consumer confusion about when packaged items must be thrown away, which in turn should reverse unnecessary disposal of still-viable food.

The GMA notes that 44 percent of the food waste sent to U.S. landfills right now comes from consumers; it projects switching to clearer labeling could reduce food waste nationwide by some 8 percent. The average family in the U.S. wastes about $1,500 in food annually, according to National Geographic — the equivalent of six meals each week. Most commonly tossed? Fresh fruits and vegetables, bakery goods and drinks.

Retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to enact the new standards between now and next summer in ways that align with their individual schedules and packaging methods. To date, the change seems to have met with no dissension from the supplier end.

How will it work?

Currently, packaged foods are marked with at least 10 different terms  Sell By, Use By, Expires On, Best Before, Better If Used By, Best By, etc.  which have caused significant consumer confusion about when foods remain safe to eat and when they should be discarded.

Under the new vocabulary, the only labels used will be “BEST If Used By” and “Use By.” The former label warns that product quality, taste or performance may not be up to par by the given date, although the food remains safe to eat after that time. “Use By,” conversely, denotes a date after which food safety is a concern, meaning the product should be tossed out once the date passes.

While the change will necessitate certain changes on the logistics end, major industry players, including Walmart, are on board with the movement.

Emily Broad Leib of Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic called the change “One of the most cost-effective ways we can reduce the 40 percent of food that goes to waste each year in the U.S.”

Hunger is huge

Analysts hope the new standards will take a significant chunk out of food waste in the U.S., but the problem remains significant globally. National Geographic recently reported the world wastes 1.3 billion tons of food worth $750 billion annually, representing more than a third of the food produced globally each year. At the same time, more than 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. Studies show more than 25 percent of the world’s agricultural land is being worked to grow food no one actually eats.

“In anticipation of our desire for perfect-looking produce, substantial amounts of food are discarded by retailers or are never harvested at all,” notes Marie Spiker of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Forbes.

In 2011 the GMA and FMI joined with the National Restaurant Association to create the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a group tasked with helping U.S. companies find ways to cut food waste. GMA member companies recycled 97 percent of food waste from operations and donated 156 million pounds of product to food banks in 2015 alone, while FMI member companies diverted 1.5 billion pounds of food waste and donated 390 million pounds to food banks.

In their next feat, the agencies are promoting a labeling revolution that will stop waste on an even greater scale.  And that should be an effort we can all sink our teeth into.