Are you throwing away food that’s still safe to eat?

This op-ed by Champions 12.3 member Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director of food loss and waste at WRI, appeared on CNN.com on December 23

In this season of festive eating — and festive provisioning — we often have a tricky time planning meals, juggling all the things in our fridge and making sure everyone has a good time and enjoys the food we cook. I know that even in my house, all the date labels on food can cause confusion. What’s the difference between them all? Is the food still safe to eat if it’s getting close to one of the dates? Can I use it to feed my friends and family?

We all often err on the side of caution because we don’t really know the difference between the different types of labels. As a result, it’s often the case in the United Kingdom — and I’m sure it’s the same in the United States — that food gets tossed from home cupboards when it passes its “best by” date.

In the United Kingdom, for example, more than half the avoidable household food waste occurs when people buy too much and then don’t use it before it spoils or before the date on the label, according to surveys by the Waste and Resources Action Programme, or WRAP.

Part of the problem is confusion over what date labels on food actually mean.
There are only two date labels food shoppers need to make intelligent choices, and only one of these labels should be on each product. These are “use by” and “best by.”

The “use by” date is for foods that could become unsafe if not used before a certain date, such as meat, fish and dairy products. It’s particularly important for pregnant women, older people and those with weakened immune systems to follow this advice. “Use by” dates are generally set by retailers or brands following guidance from health safety organizations.

In the United Kingdom, where I helped cut food waste by 21% as head of WRAP, we did some research that found retailers apply a one- or two-day safety margin when setting the “use by” date, because they don’t necessarily know how food will be handled after it leaves the store. Was it in a hot car for four hours or did it go into the fridge within minutes? So, that provides some reassurance.

The “best by” date label is for products that won’t become unsafe but might lose some flavor or freshness over time, including pasta, rice and carbonated soft drinks. I know some people who deliberately keep things beyond their best by date because they know the texture will change and they prefer the “aged” version!

Last week the USDA issued new guidance to encourage food manufacturers and retailers to use “best if used by” date labels, which consumers better understand as to do with the quality of food, and not its safety. This guidance is helpful, but it’s important to note that, apart from infant formula, retailers are largely allowed to label foods however they want.

Some retailers also add a “sell by” or “display until” date. This is purely for internal stock control, so consumers don’t need to see it. This could easily be replaced by a bar code or some other internal marking system (and this has been done in the United Kingdom).
But policies can only go so far. Consumers need clear information about the foods they buy, while retailers need to apply policies consistently and let their customers know what they’re doing. A lot of the problem is simply human:

  • People are scared by the dates and throw things away regardless of whether they are safe to eat.
  • People are confused about what the different dates mean (my husband — who should know better because he lives with me! — is often concerned about food that goes past the “best by” date, even though it is entirely safe to eat).
  • Stores add to the confusion by using the dates inconsistently.
  • Retailers and brands don’t consistently communicate to customers about how the date labels work.

Another issue is a failure to let consumers know they can extend the life of food they buy once they get it home. If a package label says, “freeze on day of purchase,” that could discourage people from freezing food that wasn’t eaten right away but is still safe to eat. A clearer label could read, “freeze up to the ‘use by’ date” — and avoid wasting perfectly wholesome but perishable food.

Worldwide, more than a billion tons of food — equivalent to one-third of all food the planet produces — is never consumed by people. This prodigal waste costs the global economy $940 billion each year, at a time when one of every nine people doesn’t have enough food to lead an active life.

Food loss and waste is also a major environmental concern. Eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be tied back to food that’s produced and never consumed, left to release planet-warming methane gases. So, we can get a win-win-win: make better use of all the food we buy, save money and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The holiday season is also a season of charity for many of us, so consider this an act of kindness to yourself, your family and friends and to those who are going hungry: Read food date labels carefully, make sure you know what they mean — remember it’s the “use by” date that you need to take note of from a food safety perspective — and let store managers know if their labels aren’t clear.

The less food we waste could mean more available for those around the world who desperately need it.