Addressing Food Waste Through Date Labeling

The consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail industries recognize consumers are confused about date labels, which is contributing to food waste, and are working to clear up this confusion while also ensuring the solutions work for both consumers and businesses.
08/23/2016 11:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Food waste has become a hot topic. Finding ways to waste less food and recycle unavoidable waste - such as plate scraps and peels - is on the minds of businesses, lawmakers, nonprofit organizations and consumers and there is no silver bullet solution. It will take big and small changes to yield results.

We know that approximately 40 percent of the food grown in the U.S. is wasted. In fact, food waste is the single largest category of material going into our landfills. While it happens all along the supply chain, American consumers account for 44 percent of food waste sent to landfill, making households the largest source of food waste in the country. Part of that food waste, as demonstrated in studies by groups like the Harvard Law and Policy Clinic and the Institute of Food Scientists, is due to confusion over date labels, and industry is working to find a solution.

One such solution is date labeling. The consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail industries recognize consumers are confused about date labels, which is contributing to food waste, and are working to clear up this confusion while also ensuring the solutions work for both consumers and businesses.

There are generally two types on packaging in the U.S.: "sell by" labels and "best by" labels. "Sell by" is a communication from the manufacturer to the retailer, giving guidance about shelf stocking, rotation and other sales-related details. The second is "best by", which is a communication from the manufacturer to the consumer. This is where you see a range of phrases including "best if used by," "freshest before," and others. The underlying principle here is that the product will meet consumer expectations for taste or performance and nutritional claims (vitamin content, for example) up until the date. After that, the product may have degraded. So, cereal may taste stale or orange juice may not provide the same amount of Vitamin C as indicated on the label.

While some may believe date labels are arbitrary, they are actually based on a battery of scientific tests including exposure to heat, light, cold and many of the other conditions that can arise when food is transported.

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If you consider the journey a cup of yogurt takes, for example- it begins in the manufacturing facility, is then transported on a refrigerated truck to the cooler at your grocery store to your car to your kitchen countertop and finally into your refrigerator. A lot of things can happen and if you're a food scientist assessing what date and phrase to put on that yogurt label, all of these situations need to be taken into account. Further, you need to convey information to consumers who are flooded with information; one of the reasons there is such an excess of quality-related phrases.

There are several things to think about with it comes to actually changing date labels. First, there's scale. A typical U.S. grocery store holds over 42,000 products. Those products are in the store for varying lengths of time. There are billions of food, beverage, and consumer products in the supply chain and it can take years for a manufacturer's packaging changes to make it all the way through the supply chain.

Further, packaging varies in size, shape, and material. Consequently, the machines that put dates on packages are also very different. Companies use digital lasers, crimping on paper, plates that stamp ink on a package, and more. Changing those machines comes with a considerable cost. Label space is another challenge. For example, a box of crackers has more space than the wrapper of a miniature candy bar. This means you can't use exactly the same phrase on every single product, but information still needs to be conveyed to consumers quickly and easily.

To reduce consumer confusion, one approach currently being assessed is streamlining the phrases currently used down to two: one date for quality and one for safety. The CPG and retail industries are working to develop a voluntary national standard that would do just that.

However, there is not clear consensus among stakeholders on what those phrases should be at this time. Legislation proposed earlier this year in Congress would mandate "best if used by" for quality and "expires on" for safety. Meanwhile, Codex, the organization made up of representatives from countries around the world that sets global labeling standards, is working on recommendations that will likely support a different set of phrases.

When looking at this challenge, two factors must be considered: what works best for U.S. consumers and the benefits of a single, globally harmonized standard. Since there is no national standard in the U.S., it is important to get this right the first time. Discussions are underway within industry and with key stakeholders to determine what will work to both address consumer confusion in the U.S. and decrease food waste.

We know that changes to date labels will only solve a small portion (about eight percent) of overall food waste, but as with so many things, small changes make a big difference.