'Use by' labels come under scrutiny as food waste concerns mount

As awareness grows around the world of the problem of food waste, one culprit in particular is attracting scrutiny: “best before” labels.

Manufacturers have used the labels for decades to estimate peak freshness. Unlike “use by” labels, found on perishable foods like meat and dairy, “best before” labels have nothing to do with safety and may encourage consumers to discard foods that are perfectly fit to eat.

“They read these dates and then they assume it’s bad, they can’t eat it and they throw it away, when these dates don’t actually mean they’re not edible or still not nutritious or tasty,” he said. Patty Apple, manager of Food Shift, an Alameda, Calif., nonprofit organization that collects and uses expired or imperfect food.

To address the problem, major UK chains such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have recently removed preferred use labels from pre-packed fruit and vegetables. The European Union is expected to announce a renewal of its labeling laws by the end of this year; is considering abolishing “best before” labels altogether.

In the US, there is no similar push to scrap “best before” labels. But there is a growing push to standardize language on date labels to help educate shoppers about food waste, including push from big-box grocers and food companies and bipartisan legislation in Congress.

“I think the level of support for this has grown tremendously,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit that studies food waste.

The United Nations estimates that 17% of the world’s food production is wasted each year; most of it comes from households. In the US, up to 35% of available food is not eaten, says ReFED. That adds up to a lot of wasted energy, including the water, land, and labor that goes into food production, and higher greenhouse gas emissions when unwanted food ends up in landfills. .

There are many reasons food goes to waste, from large portion sizes to customer rejection of imperfect products. But ReFED estimates that 7% of food waste in the US, or 4 million tons annually, is due to consumer confusion about preferred-use labels.

Date labels were widely adopted by manufacturers in the 1970s to address consumer concerns about product freshness. There are no federal rules governing them, and manufacturers can determine when they think their products will taste best. Only infant formula is required to have an expiration date in the US.

Since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates about 80% of US food, has recommended that manufacturers use “best if used by” labels for freshness and “use by” for perishables, according to surveys that show consumers understand those labels. phrases

But the effort is voluntary, and language on labels continues to vary widely, from “sell by” to “enjoy by” to “freshest by.” A survey published in June by researchers at the University of Maryland found at least 50 different date labels used on U.S. supermarket shelves and widespread confusion among customers.

“Most people think that if it says ‘sell by’, ‘best by’ or ‘expiration’, you can’t eat any of it. That’s actually not accurate,” said Richard Lipsit, owner of a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, California, that specializes in discount groceries.

Lipsit said the milk can be safely consumed up to a week after its expiration date. Gunders said canned goods and many other packaged foods can be eaten safely for years past their expiration date. The FDA suggests that consumers look for changes in color, consistency, or texture to determine if foods are okay to eat.

“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of spoilage when food has passed its edible point,” Gunders said. “We have lost confidence in those senses and have replaced it with confidence on these dates.”

Some UK supermarket chains are actively encouraging customers to use their senses. Morrisons removed expiration dates from most of the store’s milk brands in January and replaced them with a best-before label. Co-op, another supermarket chain, did the same with its own-brand yogurts.

It’s a change some buyers support. Ellie Spanswick, a social media marketer in Falmouth, England, buys produce, eggs and other groceries from local farm stalls and stores when she can. The food doesn’t have labels, she said, but it’s easy to see that it’s fresh.

“The last thing we should do is waste any more food and money because it has a label on it that tells us it’s no longer good to eat,” Spanswick said.

But not everyone agrees. Ana Wetrov from London, who runs a home renovation business with her husband, worries that without labels, staff won’t know which items need to be removed from shelves. She recently bought a pineapple and only after cutting it up did she realize that it was rotting in the middle.

“We’ve had dates on those packages for the last 20 years or so. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Wetrov said.

Some US chains, including Walmart, have changed their store brands to standardized “best if used by” and “use by” labels. The Consumer Brands Association, which represents big food companies like General Mills and Dole, also encourages members to use those labels.

“Uniformity makes it much easier for our companies to make products and keep prices lower,” said Katie Denis, vice president of communications for the association.

In the absence of federal policy, states have stepped in with their own laws, frustrating food companies and grocers. Florida and Nevada, for example, require expiration dates for seafood and dairy products, and Arizona requires expiration or best-by dates for eggs, according to Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Law School.

The confusion has led some companies, such as Unilever, to support legislation now in Congress that would standardize US date labels and ensure that food can be donated to rescue organizations even after its quality date. Currently, at least 20 states prohibit the sale or donation of food after the date indicated on the label for fear of liability, Lieb said.

Clearer labeling and donation rules could help nonprofits like Food Shift, which trains chefs using salvaged food. It even makes dog treats out of overripe bananas, reclaimed chicken fat and spent grain from a brewery, Apple said.

“We definitely need to focus more on doing these little things, like addressing expiration date labels, because even though it’s such a small part of this whole food waste problem, it can have a big impact,” Apple said.

Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan and Courtney Bonnell in London and Associated Press video journalist Terry Chea in Alameda, California, contributed to this report.

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