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IFT 2014

Date-label confusion fuels food waste

The food industry needs to collaborate on clearer date coding to prevent waste, according to one industry expert.
The food industry needs to collaborate on clearer date coding to prevent waste, according to one industry expert.

Inconsistencies in food packaging date labeling leads to unnecessary waste, according to one former Trader Joe’s leader.

The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates in 2010, Americans tossed about 133bn lbs. of food—nearly one-third of the 430bn lbs. of foodstuffs available at retail and consumer levels—rather than eating it. The agency places the total retail value of the wasted food at nearly $162bn annually.

Wasteful thinking

Doug Rauch, CEO of Conscious Capitalism and former Trader Joe’s president, told FoodProductionDaily unclear, confusing, and inappropriate use-by date coding on packaged products is a significant contributor to global food waste.

We need a better, clearer understanding of what that code really means, and make those codes relevant to the products,” he said. “Having date code on products that aren’t perishable isn’t helpful.”

Rauch said the industry should re-examine the practice of slapping use-by date codes on foods that don’t spoil, such as honey, water, and other items, to prevent consumers from tossing foods that are still consumable.

It’s ridiculous that someone would look at honey in a cupboard and say, ‘Oh, dear, this says it expires in May 2014—I don’t know if it’s still good,’ and then toss it,” he said.

Industry standards

Rauch added an informal group consisting of representatives from large retailers, food groups, and government officials is tackling the problem of date-code confusion.

We need to have collaboration in the industry on this—the problem is too big for government to solve by itself,” he said. “If it moves forward, the industry will follow.”

Coming together

An article in the July issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Safety maintains a lack of standard use and formatting in date labeling contributes to consumer confusion on food quality and safety. This inconsistency, paired with varying regulatory requirements, leads to global food waste.

In alignment with Rauch’s thinking, the review’s authors state collaboration among food manufacturers, retailers, government, consumers, and other stakeholders is vital to clear the air. The food industry should make developing a consistent best-practices date-marking system, involving on-pack storage instructions and other factors.

Also important, according to study authors, is clearer definition of what the terms in date labelling mean. For example, research indicates many consumers do not grasp the difference between a "use by" and "best before" date, which could motivate them to discard food before the end of its useful life.

Additionally, consumers aren’t fully cognizant of the amount of food waste going on under their own roofs, according to the authors. They advise wasteful habits behavior can be improved in part via education about the real meaning of date labeling, as well as proper storage, temperature control, and safe handling methods.

The study profiled in the journal was conducted with financial support from Walmart.

Rauch spoke at the recent IFT 2014 event, dedicated to food manufacturing, production, packaging and safety. The conference and expo took place June 21-24 in New Orleans.

Source: Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Safety

DOI: 10.1111/1541-4337.12086

“Applications and Perceptions of Date Labeling of Food”

Authors: Rosetta Newsome, Chris G. Balestrini, Mitzi D. Baum, Joseph Corby, William Fisher, Kaarin Goodburn, Theodore P. Labuza, Gale Prince, Hilary S. Thesmar, Frank Yiannas

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