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Breaking Down 'The Dating Game,' a Report on Food Expiration Dates

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Photograph: The Dating Game

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic released a joint report this week highlighting a major cause of food waste in the U.S. According to "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America," well, confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America. Let's break it down.

The report highlights the "diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices" across the food industry. This inconsistency is caused by a "lack of binding federal standards" when it comes to how food safety dates should be demonstrated. The date labels discussed in the report include "sell by," "enjoy by," "best before," and "use by." According to the report, 40% of food in the U.S. ends up in landfills, and that this waste constitutes about 160 billion pounds of food each year.

The report states that "open" labeling—or labeling that's provided to consumers and not just grocery store stockers—was popularized in the 1970s, when consumer concern about packaged food's freshness increased. Many companies adopted voluntary labeling to appease consumers. There were several attempts at national date labeling legislation throughout the 1970s and again in the late 1990s, but no comprehensive federal law was ever passed. As a consequence, there is now a piecemeal system of legislation regulating date labeling, which varies from state to state.

The analysis concludes that much of the food waste occurring in American homes is a result of consumers' lack of information regarding expiration dates. According to various surveys, the majority of Americans think that eating food past its expiration date constitutes a health risk—an assumption that, while well-founded, is poorly informed by a low-regulation labeling system.

NRDC and Harvard suggest several solutions to minimize food waste as a result of date label confusion. For one, they promote the elimination of the "sell-by" date, a number that's more relevant for stockers than for consumers. They also recommend a more standardized labeling system, that is more transparent to the consumer and is accompanied by "freeze by" dates or other storage information.

"The Dating Game" is a worthwhile read, especially if you're someone who checks expiration dates regularly. It reveals inconsistencies and food safety information that might change the way you shop and eat.

What do expiration dates mean to you as a shopper? Share your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author: Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her other work can be found at her website, and you can follow her on Twitter @leahjdouglas.

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