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Food waste - how to read expiration labels

Forty percent of the food produced in the United States never gets eaten, making food waste a huge problem. A number of factors contribute to this situation, but a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Law and Policy Clinic explains that confusing food date labels play a significant role.

An industry survey found that more than 90 percent of Americans might be throwing away food because they confuse date labels on food with expiration dates. As the report explains (downloadable as a PDF), the idea that dates on food packaging relate to food safety is largely a myth. In addition, there is not a well-regulated system in place to standardize those labels. Manufacturers usually use their own methods for determining which labels to use. “Use by,” “sell by” and “best before” are sometimes intended for use by retailers, while other times are meant to indicate when a food will be at its peak freshness, not when it will no longer be suitable for consumption.

To help reduce confusion and the amount of food wasted, the report’s authors suggest a number of ways to improve the food-labeling system, including making “sell by” dates only visible to businesses, and establishing more uniform labeling terminology. Manufacturers can adopt these practices themselves, but the NRDC indicates the government may need to take steps to solve this problem as well.

“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,” Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the report and director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, said in a press release. “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.”

As a consumer, you can help reduce food waste by ensuring your food is stored properly, since the amount of time perishable food spends outside the refrigerator is what really leads to spoilage. To learn more, check out the NRDC’s handy guide (in PDF format) for properly using your refrigerator.

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