Confused by Date Labels on Food? You’re Not Alone

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

American food companies have been putting freshness dates on their products for four decades. But the end result of this effort has been confusion, and billions of dollars in food thrown out.


A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic concluded that the United States’ food dating system was marred by confusion and ineffectiveness.


A big problem with the system is a lack of required federal standards, which has resulted in states and local governments using different rules for food dating, the authors of the report said.


This has caused consumers to lack confidence in the information they’re given. And when consumers are in doubt, they’re likely to throw out food, including items that are still edible.


Dana Frasz at Earth Island Journal noted that 40% of all the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten, based on another NRDC report issued last year.


“Each time food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing, processing, packaging, and transporting that food is wasted, too. This means huge amounts of chemicals, energy, fertilizer, land, and 25 percent of all freshwater in the United States is used to produce food that is thrown away,” Frasz wrote.


In terms of dollars, Americans are wasting the equivalent of $165 billion annually in food, which leads to another $750 million being spent each year to dispose of it.


To put a stop to this wasteful practice, the report offered several recommendations for policymakers to consider. These included making “sell by” dates—which are useful for stores only—invisible to consumers to reduce confusion.


Another suggestion called for establishing “a reliable, coherent, and uniform” system for dating food so shoppers can make informed and accurate decisions about their purchases.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America (Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council) (pdf)

Food Expiration Date Labels Trick People into Wasting Food, Money, and Natural Resources (by Dana Frasz, Earth Island Journal)

Why Food Companies Need to Expire 'Sell By' Dates (by Dana Gunders,


Leave a comment