Food Waste and Product Dating

Dated Food ProductFloating around the Internet these days are articles referencing a UK study on food waste.  The contents didn’t surprise us; the research results once again point out that product dating has led to an increase in food waste. Specifically, the research, conducted by an organization called WRAP, revealed the following:


-About 45-49% of consumers misunderstand the meaning of the dates on foods, resulting in a great deal of discarding of foods that would have been okay to eat.


-WRAP estimates that about 20% of food waste is linked to a misunderstanding of food dates.


Of course, food waste is bad for individual families (who are wasting money), and it’s bad for the environment since wasted food means more garbage means more methane and an increase in global warming. 


One problem, as we’ve pointed out often on this site, is that many consumers think “use-by” dates are warnings that the item is unsafe to eat after that date.  Actually, “use-by” dates simply indicate a decline in PEAK QUALITY after that time. (In other words, the food may not taste, look, or smell as good as when it was at its freshest.)


“Sell-by” dates also create confusion and waste.  These dates are supposed to help stores stock and shelve edible goods. However, according to a New York Times blog article by Dana Gunders, most stores discard products as soon as they are past their “sell-by” dates, even though the food is probably good for at least a few days after that date and possibly much longer than that.  Why do the store managers do that?  They know customers don’t want to buy food past its “sell-by” date.


Furthermore, some consumers confuse “use-by” and “sell-by.”  As a result, they may throw out eggs when the calendar date reaches the “sell-by” date. Actually, eggs are fine 3-5 weeks AFTER that date.  Canned good, if the can is in good condition, are safe to eat long after the printed date.


Want to read more about food waste from the farm or factory to home?  Get ahold of the book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What You Can Do About It) by Jonathan Bloom. This 2010 book discusses the huge amount of food wasted all along the food chain.  For example, it’s estimated that grocery stores discard $2,300 worth of “out-of-date” foods daily.  Citing a University of Arizona study, Bloom estimates that as much as 25% of the food consumers buy is wasted.  To translate that into wasted money, if a family of 4 spends $175 a week on groceries, that family will discard $40 worth of food every week; that’s $2,275 a year!


One partial solution recommended to the food industry: skip the “sell-by” dates.  Instead, manufacturers can use a system known as “closed dating,” which uses a code for stocking and shelving purposes. 


Seemingly endless suggestions for cutting food waste have been recommended to consumers in online and hard-copy articles.  Here are just a few of the ideas:


-Use ingredients that are getting old by tossing them into a homemade soup or smoothie.

-Keep your refrigerator from becoming so cluttered that you lose sight of leftovers or less fresh items.

-Don’t overbuy. Make meal plans and shopping lists and stick to them.

-Freeze leftovers if you know you won’t want to eat them again soon.

-Consult Shelf Life Advice product information on how long a particular food will remain good.

-After a power outage of more than 4 hours, most refrigerated food must be tossed. However, you can keep mustard, catsup, and vinegar-based salad dressings.  These are very stable. 


Although “use-by” dates cause consumers a lot of needless anxiety, we suspect that most folks don’t want them to disappear. Many people are dependent upon them and no longer trust their own judgment about when food is either spoiled (not enjoyable) or too much of a health risk to consume. Shelf Life Advice articles cited below provide information that can help consumers once again trust their senses and make better judgments about when food is no longer edible.“-it-spoiled”-when-doubt-check-it-out



The two Shelf Life Advice articles below tell more about food waste and support the statistics the UK study presented.  The second one also offers tips on how to decrease the amount of food that’s wasted in your home.


Source(s): ‘Use-by’ dates: A myth that needs busting” by Dana Gunders “From Farm to Fridge to Garbage Can” by Tara Parker Pope  


American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, October, 2010. “Your Health: When does not wasting food sacrifice safety?”


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