As consumers seek to visit the grocery store less often over fears of potentially contracting COVID-19, minimizing food waste is being prioritized even further during the pandemic . But the lack of regulation, standardization and general understanding of date labeling on food products (such as ‘best by’ and ‘use by’ dates) leads to billions of dollars per year in food waste in the US alone.
Researchers from the University of Maryland College of Agriculture & Natural Resources explained that date labels on food products (except infant formula) are “not supported by robust scientific evidence,” and often entirely at the manufacturer’s discretion. To address this, the researchers set out to understand the science, of lack thereof, behind food date labels. They highlighted the need for interdisciplinary and global research trends in their recent publication.
Because there is no regulation when it comes to labeling, phrases like ‘best by,’ ‘best if used by,’ and ‘use by’ confuse consumers. The labeling is simply the manufacturer’s best estimation based on taste or quality, and it is not scientifically proven.
“But our future intention is to scientifically prove what is the best way to label foods,” said Debasmita Patra, assistant research professor and lead author on the paper. “As a consumer and as a mum, a best by date might raise food safety concerns, but date labeling and food safety are not connected to each other right now, which is a wide source of confusion. And when billions of dollars are just going to the trash because of this, it’s not a small thing.”
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a vast majority of Americans (90 percent) say they are likely to prematurely discard food due to misinterpretation of date labels because of food safety concerns or uncertainty as to how to properly store the product. This confusion accounts for 20 percent of the total annual food waste in the US, representing more than 26 billion pounds per year and over $32 billion in food waste, the researchers noted.
“Food waste is a significant threat to food security,” added Paul Leisnham, associate professor and co-author. “Recognition of food waste due to confusion over date labeling is growing, but few studies have summarized the status of the research on this topic.”
The paper underlined the fact that future research on food waste and date labeling needs to take an interdisciplinary approach to better explore the perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Expertise from environmental science, food science, sociology and other disciplines can more effectively develop interventions to reduce behaviors that may increase food waste.
“This is an environmental issue, but involves the knowledge, attitudes, perceptions, and social behaviors of multiple stakeholders, including retailers, food-service providers, and diverse consumers.” Leisnham added. The paper’s researchers hope to reduce food waste through ongoing and future findings.