Many college students have faced the dilemma of determining whether their groceries have spoiled. Ambiguous directives on food such as “best by,” “use by,” “sell by” and “best before” can make cooking dinner a game of roulette. Is there really a difference between “best by” and “best before?” Should food be thrown out just because the date on the label has passed?
In our country, 40 percent of the food produced domestically is wasted each year. According to the National Resources Defense Council, twenty percent of this waste can be attributed to confusion over the meaning of date labels, and according to research from ReFed.com, approximately $29 billion is wasted in consumer spending each year because of consumer waste of safe, edible food. Labeling dates on food needs to be federally regulated to reduce this waste.
Expiration dates on foods were not necessary in the beginning of the 20th century when food for the most part came from local farms. However, as food began to travel greater distances to reach consumers, industry professionals became worried about food safety. Grocery stores established their own complicated coding system to keep track of when a product would expire. This coding became too difficult to decipher, leading to states creating their own regulations for labeling dates on food packages in plain language. The original intent of these labels was to help consumers become informed about their food, but the different forms of date labels confused consumers even further.
According to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s 2013 Report on date labeling, 91 percent of consumers claimed they occasionally discard food once the “sell by” date has passed. Less than half of the consumers could accurately define the meaning of “sell by” and “use by” dates. Approximately $1,560 of food is thrown away by a family of four each year in the United States.
Many of these expiration dates are not even based on scientific evidence. In Montana, milk must be thrown out 12 days after pasteurization, despite the absence of any harmful bacteria being destroyed. Date labels on food typically reflect the quality of food rather than the safety risk of consuming the food; yet stores, restaurants and manufacturers throw out $46.7 billion worth of food each year.
In 2016, members of Congress proposed the Food Date Labeling Act, which would standardize labels across the nation. Labeling would be reduced to two options: “best if used by” and “expires on,” for safety purposes. This standardization could provide clarity for American consumers to make better decisions when throwing out food.
Although this bill has not been passed yet, as consumers we can do our part in reducing U.S. food waste. Instead of relying on food-date labels, use your senses to determine whether your food is edible or spoiled. If your food doesn’t smell rancid or look moldy, you’re good to go. Find out how you can best preserve the freshness of your groceries; for example, cilantro can be kept fresh for a week if stored in a glass of water and covered loosely with a plastic bag.
Additionally, spend time volunteering with the Food Recovery Network, a student movement against food waste and hunger in the United States. Binghamton University has a chapter of Food Recovery Network, and volunteers go into the dining halls to package and weigh leftover food for Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse to bring to local food banks and homeless shelters. With our efforts, we can reduce the unfathomable amount of food waste in the United States.
Sarah Tucker is a senior majoring in business administration.