The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

September 19, 2013

People misread ‘use by’ label; 40 percent of U.S. food tossed

By TIFFANY HSU
Los Angeles Times

— Confused by the “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” labels on the foods sold at grocery stores? So are more than 90 percent of Americans, who prematurely discard edibles because they have misinterpreted the dates stamped on the products, according to a report released Wednesday.

Many consumers read an item’s sell-by date as an indicator of when the food will  spoil. But it’s an inac-curate assumption, according to a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Manufacturers use sell-by dates to help retailers manage their inventory. It encourages stores to sell a product within a specific time frame so that the item still has a shelf life once it’s purchased.

Not even the common “best before” and “use by” labels indicate a deadline after which products go bad, according to researchers. Instead, they are producer estimates of how long the food will be at peak quality.

“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, an NRDC staff scientist. “Phrases like ’sell by,’ ’use by,’ and ’best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety.”

The misunderstanding comes at a steep price. Last year, the NRDC found that Americans throw out as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply each year, adding up to $165 billion in losses.

Food waste makes up the largest portion of solid trash in landfills, according to researchers.

Some $900 million of expired food is dumped from the supply chain annually, much of it a result of confusion. Misinterpreted date labels cause the average American household of four to lose as much as $455 a year on squandered food, according to researchers.

The study attributes consumer reliance on expiration date labels in part on shoppers’ gradual shift away from farms over the years. So far removed from direct contact with food production, concerns about food-borne illnesses and freshness gave rise to preoccupation with sourcing and safety.