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The 'expiry' date is at the root of America's food wastage problem

The 'expiry' date is at the root of America's food wastage problem

"Expiration" dates are not expiration dates at all. Instead, they are based on subjective standards of "freshness" dictated by manufacturers.

40% of all the food produced in America, eventually heads to the landfill or is wasted in some other way. As per a landmark 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275 in this manner every year. It's also a big economical blow for food growers and retailers, who often end up having to ditch weirdly shaped produce or unsold goods. This wastage is bad for the environment too, as 25 percent of fresh water in the country is spent on producing food that goes uneaten, and 21 percent of input to our landfills is food. On the flip side, even amid all this wastage, about 42 million people in the U.S. are living with food insecurity and hunger.



 

So what can we do about it? According to experts, we can start by not letting the expiry date dictate when we throw things in the garbage. As it turns out, "expiration" dates are not expiration dates at all. Instead, they are based on subjective standards of "freshness" dictated by manufacturers. Researchers have found that the public's misunderstanding about these dates — which despite being mostly well-intentioned, are unsystematic and confusing — is a major contributor to America's food waste problem. "In the absence of culinary information, people assume that any information they've been given must be the most important information," Tamar Adler, the author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, told VICE.



 

"It's really hard to imagine you're supposed to trust your own nose and mouth," Adler said. "Add that to convenience culture and rapacious late-stage capitalism and, well, we're fu**ed." Fixing this problem, although possible, would take time, education, and a shift in our consumption habits. One of the main things to be done is standardizing date labels on foods. Although the federal government did make an effort in the direction, it failed and the responsibility fell on state legislatures, which passed laws that varied from region to region, often relying on voluntary industry standards.



 

The "best by" label on one product is not the same as a "sell by" label on another or a "best if used before" label on a third. The average consumer rarely if ever realizes or even notices that there's a difference. Most packaged foods — except foods like deli meats and deli salads — are perfectly fine for weeks or months past the date. Canned and frozen goods can even last for years. So is it a scam? According to Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Law School Food and Policy Clinic and lead author of the 2013 study, manufacturers would say "there is a legitimate reason on their part, which is that they want you to eat things when they taste the absolute best."



 

The dates are more or less a way of "protecting the brand," by making sure that you eat the food when it tastes the way they think it should, she added. However, we cannot simply place the blame on manufacturers and call it a day. The average consumer's delusion about date labels is also partly a public education problem. "The whole idea that mold and bacteria are to be avoided at all costs is not only antithetical to good cooking, but it's literally not practiced" in most cultures, Adler pointed out. "In most cuisines of the world, there's not as great a distinction between new food and old food; they're just ingredients that you'd use differently," she said.

Adler added that part of the problem may also lie with our burgeoning "food as status performance" culture, in which social media or food media coaxes us to keep buying new ingredients to make something we saw in a picture or on TikTok. "That doesn't do a great service for anybody trying to cook what they have," she said. "If they don't have the ingredients for the viral thing, then whatever they do have is just going to sit there, while they go get the other ingredients." Aesthetics also come into play. "Most of the decisions that are made about most of the foods that we eat are made for reasons that have nothing to do with the food's deliciousness or its healthiness or anything intrinsic to the food," Adler said.



 

The follow-up data to the 2013 Harvard study found that enacting standardized legislation could prove to be an economic value of about $1.8 billion to the U.S. Moreover, an estimated 398,000 tons of food waste would be diverted to actually feed people, instead of eventually rotting in landfills. Two major associations — the Consumer Brands Association and the Food Marketing Institute — have already come up with a standard date label that would work for both businesses and consumers. "They came up with a 'best if used by' label for a quality date and 'use by' for a safety date," said Broad Leib. "And they got a bunch of their members to sign on to voluntarily shift to using those dates."



 

"If Congress wanted to act, or the FDA or USDA wanted to act, it would be very easy to say, 'Here's what the standard label should be. We have some data on what works for consumers. And we know that these work for industry," she added. However, the new label standard is still more of a "halfway solution," since the label still will only appear on some products. Until someone figures out a better solution, the best thing we can do is try to educate ourselves and change the way we shop for food. "Use your sense organs," Adler said. "We have them so that we can figure out whether things in the world are going to kill us, so we can make sure we're not going to poison ourselves and die — and it's even worth doing when you suspect something is bad because feeling your body's response is so reassuring."

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