Can the EU Make a Dent in Food Waste By Nixing 'Best By' Labels?
It turns out that your nose does know. The terms “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” are largely unregulated, vary from state to state, and have little to do with food safety. In many cases, these labels indicate when the manufacturer expects the food to be at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.
This expiration date labeling confusion is leading to mountains of food being thrown out before it’s gone bad. According to a 2013 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), more than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because of a misunderstanding of date labels. For a family of four, this could translate to several hundred dollars’ worth of perfectly edible food being thrown away every year.
Americans aren’t the only ones being misled by their food labels. The European Union has a similar system of food labeling, and a 2011 report by WRAP, a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste in the United Kingdom and other European countries, estimated that date label confusion was responsible for 20 percent of avoidable household food waste.
The message from that report was heard, and last week, the EU took a step to do something about it. A discussion paper was presented to an agriculture ministers meeting calling for lifting the requirement that foods with long shelf lives carry a “best before” label. This labeling change would affect foods like coffee, rice, dry pasta, hard cheeses, jams and pickles—and could save 15 million tons of food per year from being wasted, according to officials.
“We think citizens can make sure themselves if, for instance, rice is still usable,” said Sharon Dijksma, the Dutch agriculture minister, at the meeting in Brussels.
Here in the U.S., the NRDC called for similar action in its report The Dating Game last year. Their recommendations included:
• Making “sell by” dates, which are used by stores for stocking purposes, invisible to the consumer.
• Establishing a uniform dating system.
• Including “freeze by” dates and information about freezing.
• Increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels,” like time-temperature indicators.
• Removing quality-based dates from shelf-stable products, similar to what the EU is proposing.
So far, nothing as sweeping as the EU proposal has come from the NRDC’s report here in the U.S. We hope, however, that action abroad will spur more analysis and conversation here at home. In the meantime, American shoppers are left to sort through a complex assortment of labels that are not standardized and can vary from state to state—and are probably throwing away a lot of good food in the process. (The only food dating system regulated by the federal government is infant formula.)
Here is a quick guide to common date labels we come across at U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Sell-By: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy, cook or freeze the product before the date passes.
Best If Used By (or Before): The recommended date for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Use-By: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product and usually refers to best quality, not safety.
Closed or coded dates: Packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
No matter the label, food safety is very important. it’s always a good idea to practice optimal food storage and handling once you get your groceries home. If you’re not sure how to store a particular item, shelflifeadvice.com is a great resource. We also have collected some great food storage ideas on our Reducing Food Waste Pinterest board.
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By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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