Food Waste Guru Jonathan Bloom: New Date Labels Aren’t Enough

It’s well documented that food date labels confuse American consumers. Shoppers are often faced with conflicting terminology, such as ‘sell by,’ ‘use by’ and ‘best by,’ leaving them unsure of when to throw leftovers in the trash. Experts have long associated this industry failure with increased food waste.

Last month, grocery manufacturers and retailers came together on a standardized labeling system in an attempt to make things simpler for their customers.

Companies now use more than 10 phrases to accompany freshness dates on food packaging. Two trade associations, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), led the new initiative to adopt standard wording on food packaging. Retailers and manufacturers were encouraged to start phasing in the new date-labeling system, with the goal of widespread adoption by the summer of 2018.

The new system is voluntary and narrows date labels to just two phrases:

  • “Best If Used By” pertains to product quality such as taste or performance. After the date, the food is still safe to consume.
  • “Use By” applies to products that are highly perishable with a safety concern over time and should be consumed by the date listed on the package.

But the new system could be moot if industry doesn’t match its efforts with consumer education, food waste guru Jonathan Bloom argued in an op/ed in the Guardian. Bloom authored “American Wasteland,” the 2010 book many say helped bring the food waste issue onto the mainstream stage.

And while he praised the labeling initiative as a step forward, he insists it isn’t a panacea: “Why do we need food companies to tell us when it’s best to eat our bagged kale, rice or pasta?,” he asked rhetorically in his op/ed published last week. He said he’s come to trust his eyes and nose when it comes to food safety, but insists most Americans haven’t developed this skill — a hurdle industry must surmount if it hopes to move the needle.

“Structural adjustment and the desired shift in consumer mindset are both needed and, fortunately, not mutually exclusive,” he continued.

It’s true we have a lot to contend with: About 40 percent of the U.S. food supply ends up in the trash every year, which adds up to $218 billion in costs, and two-thirds of those costs are associated with household food waste. Date labels, and the misunderstandings of them, are driving household waste.

A 2016 survey by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, National Consumers League, and John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 84 percent of Americans discard food close to or past the date on the label at least occasionally. A third of Americans said they always discard food close to or past the date on the label. A third believe date labels are federally regulated, while another 26 percent were unsure.

There is part of the survey that indicates the new voluntary labeling system is a much needed improvement. “Best if used by” was viewed as an indicator of food quality by 70 percent, with only 12 percent viewing it as a food safety label. 

ReFED, a multi-stakeholder group launched in 2015, operates in alignment in Bloom’s argument, emphasizing both consumer education campaigns and standardized date labeling as the two most cost-effective solutions to reducing food waste. And these efforts yield much in return: Prevention solutions can yield almost $1.9 billion a year business profit potential for consumer-facing companies.

ReFED mentions three corporate consumer education campaigns that seek to reduce food waste. One of those is a three-year public service campaign launched in 2016 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Ad Council. The “Save the Food” campaign encourages consumers to reduce the amount of food they throw in the trash at home. Several public service announcements (PSAs) were developed for the ad pro bono by SapientNitro. One of them is an oddly emotional television ad that chronicles the life of one strawberry from the farm to the grocery store to the trash. It ends with the link SavetheFood.com across the screen.

The campaign also features print and Internet advertising and includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest campaigns. Just as the television ad directed viewers to SavetheFood.com, the social media campaigns and print and internet advertising do as well. On the website, consumers can find information on how to reduce their food waste, including how to decipher dates on products and shopping guidelines to buy only what is needed.

The campaign generated a flurry across social media and can be easily replicated across the food industry to educate consumers about the new date labels.

In the end, reducing food waste will benefit both the wallets of consumers and the environment. But does industry have the will to follow through? 

Image credit: Flickr/Abby

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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 Mashable.com.

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