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How Sustainability at Home Goes Beyond

The U.S. Food Industry is Moving Forward on Date Labels and Food Waste

By Leon Kaye

As much as 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. The reasons are all over the map: supply chain inefficiencies, consumers’ insistence that food look perfect, and local regulations that discourage food from being donated to those who need it. One factor, however, is the confusion that results from the tangled web of food date labels across the country. Date labels on boxes and cartons -- such as 'best by,' 'use by' and 'sell by' -- are often misunderstood, resulting in perfectly edible food being tossed out.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), reducing food losses by only 15 percent would be enough to feed the 25 million Americans who lack secure access to food. A rethink is needed on food date labels, because when Americans toss food due to the misunderstanding of a food label, they are not only filling up local landfills, but they are also throwing money away while some of their neighbors go hungry.

The good news, however, is that both government and business have become more proactive when it comes to food date labeling. Legislation mandating more standardized food labels was introduced in Congress, while more companies are finding ways to communicate the differences between food safety and quality.

The problem is that food companies use a myriad of terms to describe the time at which food reaches its peak quality. Many consumers, however, assume those dates mean that food has gone bad. Date stamps with terms like 'best by,' 'use by,' 'best before,' 'sell by' and even the absurd 'for wholesome great taste, serve before date stamped below' are driven more by marketing than food science. That box of crackers in the pantry and carton of yogurt in the fridge both have plenty of time to be consumed; but the level of texture of taste may not be what it was when it was first placed store shelves, hence the erroneous dates.

Food companies often err on the side of caution when it comes to quality dating, because no manufacturer wants to risk losing a customer by having them indulge in one of their products after it had long sat on a shelf – only to find that the taste and texture were just not quite there.

The Obama administration raised awareness about this challenge a year ago. Then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency announced the country’s first nationwide food waste reduction goal. This directive calls for a multi-stakeholder effort to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. In recent years, the USDA launched other programs that seek to educate consumers and farmers about tactics that can reduce food waste from farm to fork.

But in order for bolder action to occur, nationwide standards would be a help. For now, federal laws covering food date labeling are nonexistent. Currently, there is only a haphazard system of state laws and industry standards that clearly are not working.

Bills have been proposed on Capitol Hill that aim to solve this problem. The Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, for example, aims to have two dates with standard terms stamped on all food products. A quality date would give food manufacturers the discretion to suggest a time at which the quality of a product starts to decline. A safety date makes it clear when the consumption of such food would pose a health risk.

Supporters of the bill say this will help reduce confusion and cut the amount of food that ends in landfills. For now, however, the bill has languished in Congress as events such as this year’s presidential election posed a distraction.

Nevertheless, the fact that legislation has been introduced on the House floor is an enormous step forward. “A year ago, I would have said that we are banging our heads against the wall," said Emily Broad Leib, assistant clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School and deputy director of the school’s Center of Health Law and Policy Innovation.

Leib was the lead author of a 2013 study, for which Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic partnered with the NRDC in order to make the case that the patchwork of date labeling standards across the U.S. is a huge contributor to the country’s food waste problem. And while she told TriplePundit that much work lies ahead, both governments and companies have made huge strides in how they label food so less of it ends up in the dumpster.

Take Walmart, America’s largest grocer. The joint Harvard-NRDC report caught the company’s attention shortly after its release. Executives reviewed the company’s private-label products and found at least 47 different labeling terms used to describe the date at which they reached their peak quality or present health risks. The company now requires the suppliers of its Great Value product line to use 'best if used by' on all non-perishable items. Suppliers had until the end of July to make the switch if they wanted their products to remain on Walmart’s shelves.

Meanwhile, more nonprofits and industry trade groups are joining the quest to streamline food date labeling so customers have more clarity. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Institute of Food Technologists were among the organizations that worked with Walmart to implement its new food-labeling policy.

So, why not launch a massive public service announcement campaign to get the word out? After all, any standardization of food date labels would not be enough to eliminate food waste drastically. One would think that a change in date labeling and an education campaign could together reduce food waste and a spark a vast change in habits. But Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the NRDC who wrote a book that advises consumers on how to halt food waste, insists a nationwide standard needs to come first.

“Yes, a robust consumer education campaign would be a start,” Gunders told 3p. “But we can’t do that at the moment because there is still too much confusion over what those phrases mean. To different food manufacturers, these date labels usually mean different things.”

In the meantime, Gunders suggests that consumers take small steps in order make a big difference. For one thing, she recommends that grocery shoppers exercise more restraint when they wander down supermarket aisles, and become more realistic about when they are going to eat what they purchase. “When you’re buying food, know that you’re making a commitment to it,” she said.

Next, the freezer is often a forgotten tool when it comes to reducing food waste. Just about any food can be frozen, including milk, bread and cheese. And to those consumers who have a hard time resisting the urge to toss food out once that date on the container arrives, Gunders insists that they take a closer look at the food in question. If it has been only a couple days, just try it, she advised. If it looks and smells fine, it probably is fine.

Much work lies ahead if society is going to tackle the mounting problem of food waste. A federal law would help make labels more streamlined, but that may not occur for a long time. In the meantime, tools such as the FMI’s FoodKeeper and the USDA’s Kitchen Companion offer lessons on how the question of food quality and safety is not determined by the length of time, but how food is stored. Such resources can help consumers not only reduce what they send to landfill, but also help them save money in the long run.

Image credit: Mark Turnauckas/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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