At a Food Waste Summit in Washington yesterday hosted by Keystone Policy Center and the National Consumers League (NCL), researchers released new data that confirms widespread consumer confusion over food date labeling and how it likely contributes to food waste. The new national survey assessing consumer perceptions of date labels and reporting is a collaborative effort of NCL, Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future.
According to the new survey, conducted in April, there is considerable uncertainty about the regulation of food labeling in the U.S., with a third of adult Americans mistakenly believing the federal government regulates date labels. Only 1 percent of respondents responded correctly that certain products are federally regulated; in fact, the only product for which date labels are federally regulated is infant formula. The reality is that all other foods are regulated at the state level or not at all, depending on the state.
The results also identified how consumers interpret date labels, whether terms communicate food safety vs. quality, findings which advocates expect could be useful in supporting voluntary industry efforts to standardize date labels as well as potential federal legislation to standardize date label language.
“Each year, 40 percent of our food supply goes to waste, a tragedy given the number of Americans—nearly 50 million—who live in food-insecure households,” said NCL executive director Sally Greenberg. “And one of the reasons why we waste so much is that consumers misunderstand the many different dates and language printed on food products. Consumers too often interpret date labels to mean that the food is no longer safe to eat, when that food is often times still both healthy and of peak quality. The link between confusion over date labeling and food waste is clear.”
- Consumers take action based on dates—More than one third of the population (37 percent) say they always or usually throw away food because it is close to or past the date that appears on the package. Eighty-four percent of consumers throw out food based on date labels at least occasionally.
- Younger consumers are the strictest—Younger consumers (age 18-34) were most likely to discard food based on the date label, while older consumers (age 65 and older) were the least likely to do so.
- Safety vs. quality: misperceptions and uncertainty about what date labels mean—The survey examined perceptions of six date labels: best by, best if used by, freshest by, expires on, use by and sell by. Findings revealed a striking amount of diversity in interpretation of the meaning of these labels, suggesting a need for standard labeling and consumer education. However, “best if used by” was most commonly seen as an indicator of food quality (70 percent) and “expires on” was most commonly seen as an indicator of food safety (54 percent).
- Misinformation about government role—A third of consumers wrongly think that date labels are federally regulated (36 percent) and 26 percent were unsure. Only 1 percent said they are federally regulated only for specific foods, which is technically the correct answer; the only food for which date labels are federally regulated is infant formula. Those who were more likely to think that labels are federally regulated included younger consumers (18-34), African Americans, Hispanics, households of three or more and households with children.
“Many people throw away food once the date on the package has passed because they think the date is an indicator of safety, but in fact for most foods the date is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and a survey co-author. “With only a few exceptions, food will remain wholesome and safe to eat long past its expiration date. When consumers misinterpret indicators of quality and freshness for indicators of a food’s safety, this increases the amount of food that is unnecessarily discarded, leading to wasted food, hungry households and a waste of resources nationally.”