WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture took action today to help make expiration date labeling on eggs, meat and dairy products less confusing, and eliminate a key cause of consumer food waste in the U.S.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service provided guidance that encourages manufacturers and retailers of these products to use one universal “Best if Used By” date label on their products, to avoid the confusion caused by the roughly 50 different versions of labels currently being used nationwide. They also, in no uncertain terms, clarified that the dates on food are designed “to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the sale of all other food products (such as canned foods and produce), has not yet taken similar action.
Forty percent of food in America goes uneaten, and consumers are responsible for more of that waste than grocery stores, restaurants or any other part of the supply chain. Confusing date labels are a major contributor to consumer waste, as they are often misinterpreted as an indicator that food could make them sick and must be tossed.
USDA’s action follows a landmark 2013 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, The Dating Game, which brought this issue into the national spotlight. It also comes in the midst of a national public service campaign from NRDC and Ad Council called Save The Food that is designed to combat consumer food waste (watch the TV PSA here).
A statement follows from Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook:
“This will help keep perfectly good food from getting tossed in the trash. USDA is rallying the industry around one commonsense label so consumers will know that food is still safe to eat even past the printed date. This will not only mean less wasted food, but also less wasted water, climate pollution and money. The FDA should follow suit on the food it oversees so all products will have the same easy-to-follow date labels.”
The U.S. is throwing away $162 billion worth of food each year. That’s a problem that’s costing the average American family of four roughly $1,500 every year. Yet, at the same time, one in eight Americans is food insecure.
Studies show that up to 90 percent of Americans are misinterpreting date labels and throwing food away prematurely, under the misconception that it’s necessary to protect their families’ health.
There are no federal rules that set standard ways to date food labels, with the exception of infant formula. State and local rules vary and in most instances, industry practice has been to print dates based on the manufacturers’ suggestions for when food is likely to be at its freshest or peak quality.
When good food goes to waste, so do all of the resources used to grow, store and transport it:
- If global food loss and waste was a country, it would have the world’s largest greenhouse gas footprint after the U.S. and China.
- 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land—an area larger than Canada—is used to grow food that never gets eaten.
- In the U.S., 25 percent of our nation’s fresh water goes into producing food that is never eaten.
- Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills.
Last year, the Obama administration set a target for reducing U.S. food waste 50 percent nationwide by 2030. The United Nations issued a similar goal days later. With consumers responsible for the bulk of food waste in America, and misleading date labels a key cause of consumer confusion, this action can help reach those goals.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us atwww.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.