Food Expiration Dates Target of NRDC Report
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic have co-authored a September 2013 report claiming that the date label used on food products “is a key factor” in unnecessary food waste. Titled The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, the report focuses on the lack of federal standards for date labels such as “use by,” “best before,” “sell by,” and “enjoy by,” arguing that the variability in state and local rules sows confusion among consumers, undermines the system’s goal of providing accurate indicators of freshness and harms both manufactures and retailers “by creating increased compliance burdens and food waste.”
To combat these problems, the report recommends that stakeholders “standardize and clarify the food date labeling system across the United States” by establishing “a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system” that clearly differentiates between “quality-based” and “safety-based” date labels. In particular, the report calls for (i) making “‘sell by’ dates invisible to consumers”; (ii) increasing “the use of safe handling instructions and smart labels”; (iii) including “‘freeze by’ dates and freezing information where applicable”; (iv) removing “quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products”; and (v) ensuring that “date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages.” In addition to urging the food industry to adopt these changes, the report calls on federal government to work with state agencies to reduce confusion around date labeling and consumer-facing organizations to educate consumers about the meaning of these labels.