A vast amount of food is simply thrown away, despite being perfectly safe to eat. The poor labeling system is significantly to blame - and is in need of an overhaul.
The USDA Economic Research Center reports that approximately one third of all available food is never consumed. To add insult to injury, most of it goes into landfills and ends up oozing out methane - which is substantially more harmful to the environment than CO2.
The current food labeling system is to blame for much of the waste. The FDA reports consumer confusion around product dating labels is likely responsible for around 20 percent of the food wasted in the home, costing an estimated US$161 billion per year.
It’s logical to believe that date labels are there for safety reasons, since the federal government enforces rules for including nutrition and ingredient information on food labels. Passed in 1938 and continuously modified since, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act requires food labels to inform consumers of nutrition and ingredients in packaged foods, including the amount of salt, sugar and fat it contains.
The dates on those food packages, however, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Rather, they come from food producers. And they may not be based on food safety science, at all.
For example, a food producer may survey consumers in a focus group to pick a “use by” date that is six months after the product was produced because the majority of the focus group no longer liked the taste. Smaller manufacturers of a similar food might play copycat and put the same date on their product.
Therefore, and for very good reasons, a joint study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council recommends the elimination of dates aimed at consumers, citing potential confusion and waste. Instead, the research suggests manufacturers and distributors use “production” or “pack” dates, along with “sell-by” dates, aimed at supermarkets and other retailers. The dates would indicate to retailers the amount of time a product will remain at high quality.
Determining the shelf life of food with scientific data on both its nutrition and its safety could drastically decrease waste and save money as food gets more expensive. In the meantime, we're better off using our noses and our common sense.