By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Americans throw out billions of pounds of food every year because they falsely believe “sell-by” and “best-before” dates on package labels indicate food safety, researchers have found.
A study published Wednesday by Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that dates printed on packaged foods, which help retailers cycle through stocked products and allow manufacturers to indicate when a product is at its peak freshness, are inconsistent. They confuse consumers, leading many to throw out food before it actually goes bad.
“The labeling system is aimed at helping consumers understand freshness, but it fails – they think it’s about safety. And (consumers) are wasting money and wasting food because of this misunderstanding,” said co-author Emily Broad Lieb, who led the report from the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Broad Lieb and NRDC scientist Dana Gunders said that, while labels “appear to be a rational system,” they are essentially meaningless to consumers. Manufacturers often decide on their own how to calculate shelf life and what the dates mean.
As a result, huge amounts of food, not to mention considerable natural resources and labor, go to waste in landfill and increase taxes as much of this wasted food is paid for with food stamps and other government subsidies.
A lack of binding federal standards on labeling means the dates are governed by a patchwork of state and local laws. “It’s like the Wild West,” Gunders said.
On Wednesday, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) released a statement pressing for a consistent federal food dating system.
“Under the current patchwork of state and federal laws, consumers are left in the lurch, forced to decipher the differences between ‘sell-by’ and ‘best if used by,’ and too often food is thrown out prematurely” she said.
University of Minnesota food safety scientist Dr. Theodore Labuza, who reviewed the study, said that in his more than 30 years of researching date labels, he was unaware of any outbreaks of illness related to food being kept in the refrigerator or on the shelf past an expiration date, as long as it was stored properly.
“People think the use-by date means either the product is going to die or you’re going to die if you eat it. And it’s just not true. You can’t tie shelf life to a date,” Labuza said.
“If the food looks rotten and smells bad, you should throw it away, but just because it’s past the date on the package, it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.”
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