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Emily Broad Leib et al., Consumer Perceptions of Date Labels: National Survey (Harv. Food L. & Pol'y Clinic, Nat'l Consumers League & Johns Hopkins Ctr. for a Livable Future, May 2016).

Abstract: Each year, 40% of the United States food supply goes to waste. The growing, transporting, processing, and disposing of this uneaten food costs us $218 billion each year, and two thirds of this lost economic value is due to household food waste. An important driver of household food waste is consumer confusion over date labels. Date labels are those dates that are applied to foods and accompanied by prefixes such as “sell by,” “best before,” and “use by,” among others. A U.K. study found that 20% of consumer waste occurs because of date label confusion. Because date labels are not federally regulated and state-level regulations, where they exist, are inconsistent, consumers face a dizzying array of unstandardized labels on their food products. Many people throw away food once the date passes because they mistakenly think the date is an indicator of safety, but in fact for most foods the date is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality. With only a few exceptions, the majority of food products remain wholesome and safe to eat long past their expiration dates. When consumers misinterpret indicators of quality and freshness for indicators of a food’s safety, this increases the amount of food that is unnecessarily discarded. A recent report found that standardizing date labeling is the most cost-effective solution for reducing food waste, and could help to divert 398,000 tons of the food that is wasted each year. We conducted a survey to gain further insights into consumer perceptions of date labels. This survey was fielded online to a demographically representative sample of 1,029 adults from April 7-10, 2016. These questions were part of a CARAVAN® omnibus survey that is conducted twice a week by ORC International. The findings presented here are one piece of a larger analysis of consumer perceptions of date labels.