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Are Food Expiration Date Labels Making You a Wasteful Person?
By Dana Frasz
Words such as convoluted, confusing, inconsistent, ineffective, disorienting, ambiguous and dizzying are not terms you want to hear associated with a system you believe is designed to guarantee food safety. Yet those are the adjectives that a recent report uses to describe the current date labeling regime in the U.S. Published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the report, titled The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, shows that a bewildering system of date labeling is a major driver of unnecessary food waste.
Date labeling was instituted in the 1970s as a way to give shoppers assurance they were buying fresh food. But labeling hasn’t even achieved that modest goal, according to the report. “Ironically, despite the original intention of increasing consumer knowledge about their food, date labeling has become a largely incoherent signaling device for consumers,” the report says. That incoherence is costly for shoppers and retailers, bad for the planet and could even be leading to increased health risk.
Each year, an obscene amount of food is wasted in the U.S. and around the world—and confusing and inconsistent food date labels are making the matter worse. According to another NRDC report published last year, 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten. That translates to wasted natural resources, wasted money and wasted nutrition.
Here’s a quick overview:
- Each time food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing, processing, packaging and transporting that food is wasted, too. This means huge amounts of chemicals, energy, fertilizer, land and 25 percent of all freshwater in the U.S. used to produce food are all thrown away.
- Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year in food, which costs $750 million annually just for disposal.
- Most uneaten food rots in landfills, where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is at least 56 times more harmful to the climate than CO2 and is a significant contributor to global warming.
- Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food.
Look at all of the food wasted globally and you’ll see that mismanagement of resources is a major contributor to climate change. According to a recent FAO report, the global carbon footprint of food produced but not eaten is the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of CO2 annually—which would make food waste the third-largest contributor to climate change, behind the U.S. and China.
Food waste happens for many complex reasons, people’s misinterpretation of date labels on foods being just one of them. But it might be one of the easiest food waste causes to fix. Dana Gunders, agriculture specialist at NRDC and one of the authors of The Dating Game, says, “Every entity around the world that has investigated food waste—the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United Nations and NRDC in last year’s report—have all highlighted reducing confusion around expiration dates as one of the key ‘low hanging fruit’ opportunities for reducing food waste. So we set off to seize that opportunity starting with this report.”
While many people place a lot of confidence in food date labels, its an ad-hoc system with no oversight and little consistency. The labels are not federally regulated and can vary from state to state. Despite what most people think, the labels don’t communicate whether a product has spoiled. “use by” and “best before” are just suggestions determined by the manufacturer to indicate when food is at its peak quality. “Sell by” is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the grocery store should no longer sell the product. There is no uniform criteria for any of those terms.
Dr. Ted Labuza has been working on shelf life testing since the 1970s. He says 65 percent of consumers sort through items at the store to locate the “freshest” product based on the date stamp. “That is no guarantee of safety or quality,” he warns. “The newer product could have been sitting on a loading dock for 10 hours.”
According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, confusion about date labels leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. This habit isn’t cheap: Americans annually spend between $1,365 and $2,275 per household of four on food they never eat. A study in the United Kingdom estimated that 20 percent of food wasted in British households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. The new NRDC report also warns that date labels may fuel a false sense of security when it comes to food safety. Date labels “may be encouraging consumers to ignore the more relevant risk factors affecting food safety, including the importance of time and temperature control along the distribution chain.”
The confusion also costs retailers money. A 2001 study estimated that each year, $900 million worth of inventory was removed from the supply chain due to date code expiration and identified the lack of standardization around date coding as one of the factors driving that loss. A survey of grocery store workers found that even some employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates.
The problem has trickled down to efforts to recover and redistribute food. Anti-hunger organizations around the country often make use of expired or soon-to-expire items. Yet confusion around date labels leads to food unnecessarily being tossed out instead of distributed to people in need. According to the NRDC report, experts in food recovery and food waste say there is widespread confusion among anti-hunger program administrators over the meaning of various date labels. Food safety officers working with anti-hunger organizations “must consequently spend considerable time and effort educating workers about the date labeling system and those workers must in turn educate clients and end-users when they express concerns or uncertainty about the products they are receiving.”
Each of U.S. has a role to play in reducing food waste and its horrible impacts. This involves learning how to reduce your waste, understanding date labeling and sharing this knowledge with family, colleagues and friends. According to Labuza, storage temperature is the main factor determining food safety, rather than the amount of time that has passed since the product’s creation. Labuza recommends keeping refrigerators at 40 degrees or less (he keeps his at 34) and the NRDC has put together a guide to help you understand how to more effectively use your refrigerator.
The Dating Game has a few recommendations for industry and government:
- Make sell-by dates invisible to consumers. These dates are meant to be for business-to-business communication and yet they are confused as safety dates.
- Develop reliable, standardized labeling that clearly distinguishes between safety and quality.
- Remove dates from non-perishables. Where safety is not a concern, this would encourage people to make judgments about freshness and quality by actively investigating the food instead of relying on an industry-provided label.
- Use labels as an opportunity to educate consumers on safe food handling. For example, packaging could include “freeze by” dates to help raise awareness of the benefits of freezing food to extend shelf life.
- Retailers can sell past-date products at a discount. This gives thrifty shoppers the option of overlooking the quality standards indicated by a date label in exchange for a reduction in price.
- Governments should conduct public education campaigns to educate consumers on the meaning of date labels, proper food handling and ways to determine when food is safe to eat.
Brands and retailers have an opportunity to demonstrate their concern for the environment and the health and finances of their customers by taking action to re-educate shoppers about food safety and labeling. To achieve lasting change, we need to push Congress and federal agencies to change these inconsistent and confusing rules. Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) has submitted the Food Freshness Disclosure Act to “help establish a consistent food dating system in the United States and protect American consumers.” Emily Broad Leib, one of the authors of The Dating Game, says consumers should ask their representatives to sign onto the bill and help push it through to passage.
“Creating a meaningful, standardized system is a crucial way to reduce food and resource waste, save money for consumers who are watching their wallets (particularly in these economic times) and actually improve safety for consumers,” Leib says.
Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?