According to a new report co-authored by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. consumers and businesses throw out billions of pounds of food every year due to confusion caused by America’s food expiration date labeling practices.

According to one industry-conducted survey cited by the report, more than 90 percent of Americans prematurely toss food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety.

The Harvard Law/NRDC study, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America” (PDF) is a first-of-its-kind legal analysis of federal and state laws related to date labels across all 50 states and presents recommendations for a new system for food date labeling.

For the vast majority of food products, manufacturers are free to determine date shelf life according to their own methods. The report finds that the confusion created by this range of poorly regulated and inconsistent labels leads to results that undermine the intent of the labeling, including:

  • False Notions that Food is Unsafe – 91 percent of consumers occasionally throw food away based on the “sell by” date out of a mistaken concern for food safety even though none of the date labels actually indicate food is unsafe to eat;
  • Consumer Confusion Costs – an estimated 20 percent of food wasted in U.K. households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. Extending the same estimate to the U.S., the average household of four is losing $275-455 per year on food needlessly trashed;
  • Business Confusion Costs – an estimated $900 million worth of expired food is removed from the supply chain every year. While not all of this is due to confusion, a casual survey of grocery store workers found that even employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates;
  • Mass Amounts of Wasted Food – The labeling system is one factor leading to an estimated 160 billion pounds of food trashed in the U.S. every year, making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.

“We need a standardized, commonsense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent and piecemeal system we have today,” said Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the report and director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. “This comprehensive review provides a blueprint calling on the most influential date label enforcers – food industry actors and policymakers – to create and foster a better system that serves our health, pocketbooks and the environment.”

The report recommends that food producers and retailers begin to adopt the following changes to date labels voluntarily but government steps, including legislation by Congress and more oversight by FDA and USDA, should be considered as well:

  • Making “sell by” dates invisible to consumers, as they indicate business-to-business labeling information and are mistakenly interpreted as safety dates;
  • Establishing a more uniform, easily understandable date label system that communicates clearly with consumers by 1) using consistent, unambiguous language; 2) clearly differentiating between safety- and quality-based dates; 3) predictably locating the date on package; 4) employing more transparent methods for selecting dates; and other changes to improve coherency;
  • Increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels” that use technology to provide additional information on the product’s safety.

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, a division of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, is an experiential teaching program of Harvard Law School that links law students with opportunities to serve clients and communities grappling with various food law and policy issues. The Clinic strives to increase access to healthy foods, prevent diet-related diseases, and assist small and sustainable farmers and producers in participating in local food markets.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing.

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What does that printed number on your milk carton tell you? Not that it’s spoiled or in any way unsafe. Yet 90 percent of Americans take the dates as law, a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School found — helping to explain how it’s possible that the U.S. throws out $165 billion worth of food each year. While the FDA and the USDA technically have authority over expiration date labeling, neither exercise it except in the case of infant formula. And the terms you see on your perishables, like “sell by” and “use before,” have never been formally defined. So far as food safety goes, they’re meaningless. Instances where states have attempted to impose regulations, meanwhile, are remarkably inconsistent, and usually left up to the producer’s discretion.

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