Reforming the Date Labeling System Will Reduce Food Waste

foodwasteFood waste is a big problem in the U.S. Enough food is wasted every day in the U.S. to fill the Rose Bowl. However, almost 15 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2011.

It is estimated that 30 percent of all food wasted in the U.S. could feed every food-insecure American their total food needs. Discarded food also has environmental consequences: all of the resources used to produce, store, transport and handle the food, including arable land, labor, energy water and fuel are wasted. A study by McKinsey & Company projected that about 100 million acres of cropland could be saved if developed countries reduced consumer food waste by 30 percent. An estimated 25 percent of the fresh water in the U.S. goes into the production of wasted food.

One key way to reduce food waste in the U.S. is through reforming the date labeling system, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic). Improving date labeling policies and practices will bring benefits to consumers by decreasing confusion, and will improve food safety. There are various forms of food date labels which include “use by,” “best before,” “sell by,” and “enjoy by” dates. Date labels are unregulated and not well understood by consumers, and the confusing date label system contributes to food waste in the U.S.

The confusing date label system causes considerable amounts of food waste because many consumers think that pastdate foods are not edible. The date label system causes problems for manufacturers and retailers because an inconsistent system and practices create increased compliance burdens. The confusing system also hinders food recovery and redistribution efforts because handling pastdate foods is administratively and legally complex.

The report lists a number of recommendations to reform the date label system, including:

  • Making “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer since they are meant for retailers only for stock control.
  • Creating a reliable, coherent and uniform consumer-facing dating system that establishes standard language for labels. Labels should include “freeze by” and freezing information when it’s applicable.
  • Removing or replacing quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products.
  • Making sure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages.
  • Increasing the use of safe-handling instructions and “smart labels” and provide clear and relevant food safety information with date labels.
  • Increasing consumer education about the meaning of date labels, the importance of proper refrigeration temperatures, and strategies on how to determine if food is safe to eat.

Another way to reform the date label system is through federal regulation. There is inconsistent regulation of date labeling practices at the federal, state and local levels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can use their legal authority. The FDA could interpret its existing statutory authority to regulate labeling practices for the foods under its authority. However, the FDA does not use its authority to do so. The FDA states that it “does not require food firms to place ‘expired by’, ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products,” but instead states that “this information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.” Although the USDA more explicitly addresses date labeling for food products that are under its authority, it does not generally exercise its authority.

Photo: Nick Saltmarsh

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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