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Toss the Tabbouleh or Not? Confusion over Food Labels Reigns

Companies and organizations in the food industry know that food waste is a top issue among environmentalists and that the spotlight is only growing hotter, particularly as confusion around the topic continues to grow. A recent study completed on behalf of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association indicated that the most commonly cited measurement used when food waste is being reported – that up to 40% of food produced around the world goes to waste because it is spoiled or tossed – may not be accurate. Now a new poll shows that confusion about food waste is rife not only on the side of those tracking and reporting it, but on the side of the consumer, as well. The poll, conducted for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Policy Action Network by Lake Research Partners, shows that nearly 60% of Americans have had a discussion within their household about the meaning of date labels on their food.

The GMA says the findings clearly illustrate that the current range of variations of date labels such as “best by, use by, sell by, use or freeze by,” found on food products around the country is problematic for consumers. The disparate terms cause confusion among Americans about what each of these different labels mean for product safety, and whether a food is still safe to eat. In fact, the survey found that 40% of adults say they have had disagreements within their household over whether a food product should be kept or thrown away.

“Clarity on product date labeling will reduce confusion, cut food waste, and enable households to spend their time arguing about something other than what a date label means,” said Meghan Stasz, GMA’s senior director of sustainability.

In February, GMA and the Food Marketing Institute joined together to streamline and standardize the wording accompanying the date labels on packages to offer greater clarity regarding the quality and safety of products.

The new voluntary initiative streamlines the myriad date labels on consumer products packaging down to just two standard phrases. “BEST If Used By” describes product quality, indicating that the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume. “USE By” applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date. This initiative will help reduce consumer confusion over dates on the product label, save households time and money, and help reduce unnecessary food waste.

Other interesting poll findings include:

  • Older Americans are slightly more likely to keep food longer, while younger Americans are more likely to throw food away earlier based on the date label.
  • More men say they are the ones in the household arguing to keep food longer; 64%t of men make this claim, versus 56% of women.

An interesting development in sustainable packaging in terms of reducing food waste came from grocery store chain Sainsbury’s earlier this month. The UK grocer is launching a new packaging “smart label” on its store-brand ham that changes color depending on how long the package has been open, telling the consumer if the product is still safe to eat. The edibility of the ham inside the package – and therefore the color of the label – also depends on the temperature of the refrigerator in which the ham is stored.

Jane Skelton, head of packaging at Sainsbury’s, says the company created the packaging in the hopes of reducing waste while helping customers save money, writes The Grocer. Last year, Sainsbury said it had reduced waste by more than half after moving more beefsteak lines into vacuum packing.

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