It is extremely common to see a food item with a date printed on it, which is meant to somehow indicate the quality or lifespan of that item. However, contrary to popular thought, in the United States there is no federal regulation as to how those dates are chosen, and only occasionally is there a law that mandates they even exist at all (Hall-Phillips 118). The waste of food across the globe is a very prominent issue, especially in our current time. The variety of dates that comes without government standardization leads to consumers and organizations alike frequently throwing away food that may still be suitable for consumption. This effect not only greatly contributes to the volume of American food waste, but it also cuts into the amount of food that could be used to alleviate hunger among the poor or otherwise needy. To combat this unnecessary waste, stronger federal regulations should be implemented regarding how manufacturers determine and phrase their food dates.
It may be somewhat surprising that the U.S. government does not provide specific standards and regulations on food expiration dates, as many other food related factors are heavily scrutinized by the Food and Drug Administration, such as possible allergens or nutrition information (Hall-Phillips 118). In fact, the only food item with federally regulated expiration dates across the board is baby formula (119). In the European Union, food dates are restricted to the phrasings of either “best before” or “use by,” with the former being a more arbitrary indicator of freshness while the latter implies unsafe consumption after the date passes (119). In the United States, different manufacturers use many phrases such as “sell by,” “use by,” “best before,” “expires on,” etc. This produces a wide variety of possible options, each with their own connotations. Due to ambiguous phrasings, many consumers can become confused and dispose of food before it is unfit to eat, as the dates mislead them into “playing it safe” and not risking possible food poisoning or unfreshness (124).
The expiration date, whether it is actually meant to imply “expiration” or not, is very important to the consumer. In Christiane Schroeter’s article “Consumer Valuation of Organic and Conventional Milk: Does Shelf Life Matter?,” a study was done to see how important dates and other buying factors are to the general consumer, specifically in organic milk (118). Notably, organic milk has on average a significantly longer shelf life compared to regular milk, lasting up to six weeks as opposed to the typical two or three before spoiling (120). This is due to pasteurization at ultra-high temperatures, aimed to kill bacteria that are more prevalent in organic cows (120). This extended shelf life means the milk can stay longer in stores causing fewer customer complaints and returns from spoiling. Stores are also more likely to sell a product with a longer shelf life. But these benefits also come with an increased market price (120). As milk is known to be particularly sickening when expired, it may seem at first that consumers would stay away from milk supposed to last twice as long as normal, as it seems unnatural, hard to believe, and risky. However, Schroeter’s study found the opposite: that consumers were more likely to buy organic milk even with the unnatural seeming expiration dates and increased price (126). While there is no evidence to confirm that organic milk is healthier, it was still more likely to be bought due to its longer lasting freshness from the far-in-advance expiration dates, demonstrating how influential these dates can be in convincing buyers (119).
The entire system of expiration dates can be very confusing or misleading to potential buyers. For example, a food that says “expires on” implies the food is unfit for consumption after that date passes, while foods that say “best before” may still be able to be safely ingested after the date, with a possible decrease in freshness. However, when skimming food dates while shopping or cleaning out a household pantry, these slight differences in phrasing may not be as apparent, and the food could end up being thrown away even if it is still fine to eat. According to the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, “over 90 percent of Americans occasionally threw edible food away based on the ‘sell by’ date, out of a mistaken concern for food safety” (Wilson 1452). Many consumers are not entirely clear on what the individual phrases mean in terms of safety, and with the large variety, it is hard to keep track and remember the specifics in day-to-day life. However, despite the use of the word “expiration” in dating foods and consumers’ fear of health detriments from consuming expired foods, most foods past their date may be untasty but not pose any health risks if eaten (“For Food”). In an effort to erase confusion as well as reduce unneeded wastes, several organizations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute have been lobbying for standardization of expiration date phrasings to either “best if used by” or “use by.” Without a change in the regulation of and criteria for food expiration dates, the current trend of unnecessary waste will only continue. This will certainly not eliminate unnecessary waste completely, but will still have a large impact due to the volume of waste that this single issue creates.
On average, about 25% of the food in American households is thrown away (Wilson 1447). Of that, 25% is estimated to be directly a result of date labels, whether it be from a legitimately expired product or a misunderstanding (1448). These misunderstandings are present in the common household as well as grocery stores or other food-based businesses. For obvious reasons, grocery stores will not sell food that has passed its sell-by or expiration date, but if printed with “best before” the item is still technically able to be sold (Hall-Phillips 119). However, grocery store employees themselves also seem to not be fully aware of the different meanings of the dates, as a survey found that most of the time when organizing stock they paid attention to the date only and not the implications of the preceding phrase (Wilson 1452). By reading and making a disposal decision based only on the date and not the wording, food is thrown away that could be either safely sold or donated to an organization dedicated to feeding those without a steady source of food.
Soup kitchens rely on donations, whether they come from individuals or leftover stock from charitable food selling stores. Without the charity of the local public, soup kitchens would not be able to run and would leave many individuals without meals. However, although feeding their visitors is an important priority, so is ensuring that the food they serve is healthy and would not cause negative health effects due to expiration. Stores sifting through their stock must dispose of expired foods whether they want to or not due to possible legal repercussions if those foods were given to a charity and caused someone to become sick (Hall-Phillips 119). However, as mentioned previously, some foods are not actually expired but are only thought to be. Similarly, even if the food has already made it to the soup kitchen, it may still be thrown away due to confusion over its marked date, even if the date is a mere freshness indicator and not indicative of possible health risks.
With no government regulation of the meaning of, or chosen lifespan of, a product, dates are entirely up to the individual manufacturers, and are frequently set with marketing strategies to maximize profits. If the food is set to expire more quickly, stores will have to clear and restock their inventory more frequently, leading to more purchases from the manufacturer. If the dates are extended to claim the food lasts longer, they are marked to be more expensive so the profit still exists. This process still applies to the sale of organic milk outlined earlier, as while organic milk in actuality does have a longer lifespan than regular milk due to its pasteurizing process, companies are still able to increase prices to make up for profit loss. In this way, manufacturers have the ability to “milk” their customers, exploiting their fear of food borne illness to contribute to the store’s financial benefit. This practice, of course, is not only dishonest but increases the volume of food waste. Foods marked incorrectly or confusingly prevent those who truly need them from having access to what could be an important meal.
The marking of food dates leads to waste in virtually all food-selling establishments. For individual homes, more is bought than consumed, and the excess is thrown away. In grocery stores, food is disposed of rather than donated due to ethical and legal fears of possible repercussions due to food-borne illnesses. In soup kitchens, food may still be disposed of if perceived to be unfit for consumption because of the arbitrary date set. Wherever there is food, there is food waste, and that waste is only multiplied by the confusing wordings of the dates or prematurely set expirations.
While societal food waste is definitely a cause for concern, the average individual prioritizes his or her own personal or familial health first. While many feel guilt when faced with wasting food, it is also a commonly held belief that it is necessary to have some extent of waste in order to minimize possibility of diseases or food poisoning (Qi et al. 7). After all, if there is any cause to believe a food may cause illness, why risk eating it? If a food is past its date, wouldn’t donating an expired and possibly rotten food be disrespectful to whoever may be receiving it? While these are reasonable assumptions, it is still important to note that a large majority of the time, the dates are either arbitrarily set for sales purposes or meant to indicate the item’s general freshness and quality rather than the probability of disease (For Food, n.p.). If the date is perceived as an optimal freshness indicator rather than a harbinger of potential illness, families would be much more likely to reduce their waste, and kitchens would accept and serve rather than discard.
The lack of government regulation regarding the creation and marking of food expiration dates has created a confusing network of many different ways to print said dates. With all the various possible ways of presenting and phrasing the dates on food products, it is not surprising that many consumers do not recognize the differences, and read each as a definite “expiration.” This not only adds to the general volume of public food waste, but also prevents those in need from receiving additional food. To help reduce food waste, legislation must issue stronger control over how the dates are created, and spread more awareness over what those dates really mean.
“For Food Manufacturers, ‘Sell By’ Labels May Have Reached Their Expiration Date.” States News Service, 2017.
Hall-Phillips, Adrienne and Purvi Shah. “Unclarity Confusion and Expiration Date Labels in the United States: A Consumer Perspective.” Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, vol. 35, 01 Mar. 2017, pp. 118-126.
Qi, Danyi and Brian E. Roe. “Household Food Waste: Multivariate Regression and Principal Components Analyses of Awareness and Attitudes among U.S. Consumers.” Plos ONE, vol. 11, no. 7, 21 July 2016, pp. 1-19.
Schroeter, Christiane, et al. “Consumer Valuation of Organic and Conventional Milk: Does Shelf Life Matter?.” Journal of Food Distribution Research, vol. 47, no. 3, Nov. 2016, pp. 118-133.
Wilson, Norbert L.W., et al. “Food Waste: The Role of Date Labels, Package Size, and Product Category.” Food Quality and Preference, vol. 55, 01 Jan. 2017, pp. 35-44.