When keeping or tossing old food, people seem to fall into two categories: the throw-out-immediately crowd, and the sniff-and-taste crowd. I come from a proud family of sniff-and-tasters, whereas my husband is staunchly pro-disposal. (Probably because he’s accidentally swallowed a mouthful of sour milk before—so who can blame him?)
But research into our “use by,” “best by,” and “sell by” food labels have lent some credence to the sniff-and-tasters’ position. All these food labels mean different things, and should be approached differently by consumers, as National Geographic explains:
‘The ‘best before’ date relates to the quality of the food,’ says Marsh. It’s a gauge of how long an item will remain at its freshest and tastiest, and is appropriate to the vast majority of foodstuffs on the supermarket shelves. In general, she says, ‘it is fine to eat foods after their ‘best before’ date, except for eggs, as long as they look, smell, and taste OK.’
But that guidance can be tough to swallow both for the food industry and for consumers. ‘We are a much more risk-averse society’ now than a generation ago, says the University of Nottingham’s Morgan. ‘Retailers and manufacturers are worried about being sued, and we the public read about health scares, listeria, and E. coli and would just as soon throw anything out rather than take a risk.’
Indeed, the ‘use by’ date has definite safety implications, and it is applied to foods such as meat, fish, and chicken, which are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view. These are dates that should be strictly adhered to, Marsh says, regardless of how a product looks or smells.
Then there is the ‘display until’ date, which is placed on packaging primarily to help supermarkets better manage their stock rotation and which has no real implications for consumers at all.
How We Contribute to Expensive, Damaging Food Waste
Our understandable confusion regarding the meaning and import of these various returns often results in millions of consumers dumping food into the trash bin, “just in case.” But not only is such a practice expensive to the individual, over time it is causing a massive food waste problem. Around the world, 1.3 billion tons of food—about a third of food production every year, worth more than $750 billion—is wasted. Just 133 billion pounds are wasted every year in the United States alone.
“More than a quarter of the world’s agricultural land is being worked to grow food that nobody eats,” notes National Geographic‘s Roff Smith. That waste is costing the typical U.S. and U.K. family “roughly $1,500 a year, with the equivalent of six meals thrown out each week, according to Love Food Hate Waste.”
We all want to avoid food poisoning and the potentiality of gulping down sour milk. But surely, there’s a better way to determine (and, importantly, prolong) the life of our food?
Making Food Perishability Simple For Consumers
On Wednesday, the Consumer Goods Forum introduced a new initiative, asking retailers to streamline and simplify our use by/sell by/best by dates, enabling consumers to eat and use food more efficiently.
“The goal is to simplify and harmonize food date labeling around the world to reduce consumer confusion,” Ignacio Gavilan, director of sustainability at the Consumer Goods Forum, told NPR.
The Forum’s work builds on an initiative started earlier this year by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute, NPR reports. The two organizations suggested a new way of branding and selling food, in hopes of simplifying things for consumers: their new phrases would be “BEST if Used By” (a.k.a., a product may not taste its best after this date, but is still safe to consume) or “Use By” (which would refer to highly perishable products).
The forum’s managing director told Reuters they hope to cut food waste in half by 2025.
Fighting Food Waste Yourself
But raising awareness—and cultivating savvier shopping decisions—could also help cut down on our food waste problem. Hopefully new food labelling will simplify things for consumers, but there will always be those “just in case”-ers who dispose of food the minute the clock strikes 12 on that “Best if used by” date.
This is why Love Food Hate Waste’s Emma Marsh suggests that consumers approach shopping a little differently, too: “There are many points along the line when [food] could be saved—from buying just the right amount, to storing it properly, to freezing it before it reaches its use-by date, to finding imaginative ways of using odds and ends and leftovers in another meal,” says Marsh. “Getting those things right means that the food doesn’t have to go to waste.”
Sometimes, this might mean putting half a container of cheese or hamburger into the freezer the moment you get home from the grocery store. Other times, it might mean putting less food on your plate at mealtimes: better to go back for seconds than to throw away half a plate of perfectly edible food. A lot of us could likely do a better job storing baked goods and produce, in order to help them live longer.
None of us wants to eat spoiled food. But perhaps, with smarter labelling and savvier shoppers, we can protect ourselves and cut food waste, all at the same time.