Survey: 'Best by' dates confuse consumers, may contribute to food waste

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 - “Sell by” and “best by” date labels found on food packaging are confusing to consumers, and may be contributing to food waste in the United States, says a survey released by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the National Consumers League (NCL).

“The link between confusion over date labeling and food waste is clear,” NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg said in a release. “Consumers too often interpret date labels to mean that the food is no longer safe to eat, when that food is oftentimes still both healthy and of peak quality.”

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The report's lead author, Emily Broad Leib, the FLPC's director, detailed the survey's findings at the NCL Food Waste Summit in Washington, D.C. The event was sponsored by General Mills, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Tyson Foods.

“Our findings confirm that consumers use date labels to make decisions about discarding food,” Leib said.

Over a third of the 1,029 adults surveyed online indicated they always discard food close to or past the date on the label, and 84 percent do it at least “occasionally.”

Thirty-six percent of those surveyed thought date labels were federally regulated - when the only food that has regulated date labels is infant formula. Plus, the survey found, the majority of respondents seemed to be confused about the purpose of date labels.

Most (70 percent) said they considered a “best if used by” date label to be a food quality indicator, and only 12 percent considered it a food safety label. When it came to “expires on” labels, 54 percent said the labels were an indicator of food safety, and 23 percent thought they referred to food quality.

“For most foods the date is a manufacturer's best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality,” Leib said. “With only a few exceptions, food will remain wholesome and safe to eat long past its expiration date.”

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Annually, about 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. The study released today found that consumers are most likely to discard raw chicken, prepared foods, deli meats and pasteurized milk (in that order) past their “use by” dates.

Younger consumers - between the ages of 18 and 34 - were found to be more likely to “always” discard products by the “use by” date across all foods, with the exception of raw chicken and prepared foods, which were discarded at uniform rates across age groups.

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