133 billion pounds.  Billion.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that is the amount of food that is wasted every year in the United States because of our current system for labels marking dates on food products (hereafter “date-labeling”). This 133 billion pounds of food is 31% of the 430 billion pounds of edible food available at the consumer and retail levels, and in 2010, was estimated to have a value of $161.6 billion in retail value.  Worldwide, it is estimated that one-third of our food is thrown away, most often prematurely.  This equates to 1.3 billion metric tons of food product thrown away every year.  A survey by the public health and safety organization NSF International in 2010 found that people have a hard time understanding and differentiating between common food label terms such as “expiration date,” “best if used by date,” and “sell by date.”  Almost half of Americans alone do not throw away food until they see mold or color changes, and 17 percent of Americans say they just toss food when it starts to smell.

Either way, because of the lack of understanding of these labels, we are wasting billions of pounds of food or, we are placing ourselves at risk of exposure to pathogens such as salmonella and E. Coli.  These labels are confusing, and often encourage people to throw food away too soon and contribute to the food wasting problem also occurring at a high level in other developed countries around the world.

I have to admit, I am one of the culprits, or victims of this date-labeling system.  On countless occasions I have thrown food away prematurely because of a date located on a food product in my refrigerator.  On the other hand, I have also kept food for much longer than I should have because I misunderstood the labeling.  My common mistakes are with eggs, milk, and yogurt.  I often throw these out if it has been a couple days past the “sell-by” date, even though I recently learned eggs stay good for 3-5 weeks in the refrigerator, milk will stay good for one week or three months in the freezer, and yogurt will last 7-10 days in the refrigerator.  I also use the standard “smell and look” test that many others use when it comes to meat products in the fridge.  If the meat is still red, and there isn’t anything weird growing on it, I assume that I can cook away anything suspect but invisible to my eye.

I know I am not alone in this likely unhealthy/dangerous process of mine, as I merely have been following the common trends I learned from roommates and classmates in the culinary institute of my dorm room at Gonzaga University.  Not only have I recognized the importance of food safety, but I have also recognized that my standards for keeping or throwing away food is unfortunately contributing to the 133 billion pounds of food wasted every year.  My habits need to change, but more importantly, the date-labeling on food needs to be clearer.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lists a quasi-explanation of their date-labeling system on their website.  The website explains three types of date-labeling:  “sell-by,” “best if used by (or before),” and “use-by.”  According to the website, “sell-by” dates tells the store how long to display the product for sale, and consumers should buy the product before the date expires.  “Best if used by (or before)” indicates the date in which the food will start to lose its best favor of quality, but it is not an indication of a purchase or safety date.  The “Use-by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the produce while at peak quality, which is determined by the manufacturer.

The USDA website also indicates that except for “use-by” dates, product dates don’t always pertain to home storage and use after purchase.  “Use-by” dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.  The website indicates that even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality if handled properly.  But, at the same time, the USDA also says that we should follow the use-by date.  In regards to the sell-by date, the USDA recommends cooking or freezing the product according to a time-chart they have created.  Without having access to the internet, which hundreds of millions of people around the globe do not have, there is no quick way to know when food should be safely used.  The USDA does provide a warning that foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria, and that if food has developed such characteristics, we should not use it.

Other than providing a storage temperature and a chart for how long foods should be stored after the “use-by” date or the “sell-by” on the USDA’s website, there is no clear indication as to when the food is no longer safe to eat.  I suggest that the USDA should re-examine their labeling system, and provide information to consumers directly as to the definitions of these labels on the food products themselves.  As you can see from above, there is no indication of a date after which food should not be eaten.  Additionally, the USDA’s labeling and explanation of the “use-by” label, is contradictory – explaining that food should still be safe after the use-by date, but that we should follow that date anyways.  Does that mean that food truly isn’t safe after that date?  It is unclear.  Without clarification, we either risk wasting a large amount of food, or we risk subjecting ourselves to a various number of foodborne illnesses.

So what should be done to fix these vague and contradictory labels?  What should be done to educate consumers about these dates?  One option, is to create alignment among the food industry to develop a more consistent or single best practices date-marking system which takes into consideration on-package instructions for food products.  This would provide consumers with a date that indicates when the food should be eaten to ensure full quality and taste, followed with an explanation and suggestions for storing the food if the consumer plans to keep the food for an extended period of time.  Adding an “eat-by” date would also provide a clearer set of procedures for consumers to determine when they should absolutely eat the food by.  This would prevent food from being thrown out prematurely, yet at the same time, protect consumers from the risks associated with foodborne illnesses.

Another option, in addition to the first, is to revisit the labeling issue among regulatory agencies.  The main issue, in my mind, is excessive wasting of food, and lack of dates specifically placed for safety reasons.  U.S. and international regulators have devoted excessive resources and inspectional focus on food quality date labeling at the retail level, instead of focusing on food safety.  Quality-based date labeling is not a critical food safety issue; thus, resources could be shifted to ensure that regulatory efforts are focused around more significant health and safety risks than that on labeling concerns that have to do with food quality.

A third option would be to provide simple, easy to follow consumer directions on food quality and safety.  Food waste behavior can be changed through education about the meaning of date labeling, the importance of temperature control and limited shelf life for some food products, food storage guidance, and safe handling methods.  Because most consumers will not look up the current food-labels online to understand their meaning, clear explanations should be provided on the labels themselves to educate consumers on the safety of food products in relation to the dates used.

A fourth option, is to have the food industry and regulatory agencies conduct more research to evaluate and further develop indicator technologies that could provide information relating to food quality or safety.  Technology enhancement and improvements along the supply chain to monitor temperature and storage information could help better gauge true shelf life and reduce food waste.  If the industry can create a uniform set of procedures for determining a true shelf life for many different types of food, there is no reason why they could not then warn consumers about the risks associated with eating the food after certain dates, and tell consumers how to store food to prevent the risk of foodborne illness.

Currently, with the exception of certain poultry, baby food products and formulas, most all other food product date labels are not required by federal law, but are voluntarily provided by food manufacturers.  Most of these dates are not expiration dates, as you can see from the USDA’s website.  A final option would be to require these labels or, actually prevent these labels from being used if they are ambiguous and confusing by federal law.  Some dates have been found to have significant marketing purposes for product manufacturers, enticing consumers to throw out food prematurely.  This wrongly creates the illusion to consumers that they need to get rid of the food early, and buy more, even when the food is not truly a risk to the consumer’s health.  A good example of this is dates that are appearing on soft drinks.  There really is not much to expire with a beverage made of water, sugar, and artificial coloring.  This is one of those cases where the manufacturer appears to just be encouraging consumers to throw it out and buy more.

To conclude, the date labeling system in our country and others is confusing, and is contributing to the vast amount of food waste and food poisoning world-wide.  Hopefully more consumers will start to realize the importance of clarifying these dates, and will rally to initiate change in the industry.  Until that happens, I recommend that consumers educate themselves as much as possible to the meaning of the dates they see on their food products, and that they follow the USDA’s guidelines before deciding to throw away their food prematurely. They, like me, should also probably learn more before eating food that has been sitting in the fridge for a few weeks.

About Today’s Blogger:

Zach Haveman is a third-year law student at Seattle University School of Law, where he is currently enrolled in a Food Law and Policy course.  Zach has various experiences doing litigation and transactional work through his internships at the Municipality of Anchorage, Corbis Images, and Lee & Hayes.  One of Zach’s major interests relating to food law involve the labeling of food products and false advertising claims in the industry.  In his spare time, Zach enjoys exploring the various restaurants and farmers markets throughout the city of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.