Food waste has long been a problem in developed and developing nations alike. In the European Union, annual food waste amounts to approximately 90 million tons—and that figure does not include agricultural waste and fish discards. Now the European Union is aggressively moving to reduce food waste by addressing the “Best Before” labeling that creates much confusion and is a large factor behind this appalling waste of food within the region.
The challenge of food waste is an important one because on both sides of the Atlantic, as much as 40 percent food is wasted. Emerging markets around the world, from the Middle East to Asia, do not perform much better when it comes to food that ends up in landfill instead of on plates. One organization estimates as much as half of the world’s food supply ends up uneaten. And despite the constant fretting over how the planet will feed 9 billion people by 2050, the stubborn fact persists that hunger and famine are not a problem of supply meeting demand—rather, the issue is one of efficient distribution. But while developing countries witness most of their waste after harvests and during food processing, wealthier nations in Europe and North America see such waste during and after food hits retail shelves. So how will the EU take action?
An open “discussion letter” ahead of an EU agricultural minister’s meeting today, calls date-labeling a large contributor to the continent’s food waste problem. Many retail employees, and consumers, often confuse “best before” and “use by” labels commonly seen on packages. But the problem with the “best before” terminology is many foods, from pasta to chocolate to vegetable oils, are still perfectly fit for consumption after that pesky “best by date” (same with many foods with the “use by” moniker, though full disclosure: This author is frugal and has an iron stomach). In contrast, the “use by” label is more pertinent for perishables such as fresh fish and dairy products … but the reality is many consumers assume both labels have the same meaning.
For now, the EU (and common sense) advises if a food package is still intact, and the product still smells good, then do not throw the package away—but follow instructions such as “use within three days of opening.”
High-agricultural ministerial meetings aside, the upshot is manufacturers and retailers must undertake a massive education program if we as a society are going to reduce our absurd rate of food waste. Of course this is an economic problem–retailers are losing money on products that end up in the trash. And once that food is disposed, it creates environmental problems, from consuming landfill space to such greenhouse gasses as methane.
But this is also a moral problem: Too many people are still going hungry when plenty of perfectly food of fine quality ends up in dumpsters. Some food retailers are already taking action, and even sports teams have taken a creative approach beyond simply throwing food away. In the end, however, this is a problem that will require companies to look beyond their financial bottom lines and look at a bigger picture. Governments also need to rethink how they write regulations because after all, businesses are hypersensitive about preserving their brand and in the U.S., not getting sued over the consumption of spoilt food. All stakeholders must be involved, because in a world with the curious trends of rising obesity rates and food waste rates, the current system of food labeling makes little sense.
Image credit: Wikipedia (Muu-karhu)
Leon Kaye currently lives in the United Arab Emirates, where he works for the Abu Dhabi office of APCO, a communications consultancy.