Could a Universal Expiration Date Help Stop Food Waste?

A universal expiration date could really cut down on food waste.

Humans have a hard time interpreting things. Other human emotions, complicated recipes, and the most difficult, of course: expiration dates on food containers.

If you’re one of the people who has a difficult time interpreting expiration dates, don’t worry about it—you’re definitely not alone. We’ve all been there.

In fact, most people just use the “smell test”—or even the “guess I’ll give it a taste” test (no, just me?).

“Best by, sell by, and other such warnings don’t mean the contained food will be putrid on the day after expiration,” Health Line reports.

“In many cases, except for things like deli meats, the food has plenty of shelf life ahead of it.”

And if you’ve ever used the smell test, you’ve probably realized that it’s often more effective than the stamped on expiration date. So, if the milk, yogurt, or jam still smells okay, why isn’t the date more accurate? Because there’s no designated universal expiration date. And it’s that mismatch that’s leading to a heck of a lot of food waste.

Why we need a universal expiration date

Apparently, people who don’t adhere to the “smell test” think the expiration date is really, really important.

“A survey of 1,000 people conducted by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the National Consumers League, and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found about a third of consumers believe expiration dates and terms are federally regulated,” Health Line explains.

“Some people believe there’s a very official system behind these dates. There isn’t,” Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), adds.

“What phrase is used is up to the manufacturer. Consumers are not distinguishing between these dates.”

All of this confusion is leading to a lot of food waste. In fact, some estimates state that “40 percent of all food in the United States ends up in the trash, and 40 percent of that is due to consumers,” Health Line reports.

“That adds up to about $162 billion in waste each year, calculating in the water, land, labor, and other factors needed to create that food.”

What’s being done

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as state and federal legislators, want to do something about these “meaningless” dates:

  • The FDA is revamping the information on food nutritional labels.
  • At the state level, California is ahead of the pack. The state “introduced a bill that would have given food packaging ‘expires on’ dates and an ‘elevated risk date,’” Health Line reports. “It has received support from environmental, academic, municipal, and waste management groups. The major opposition comes from agricultural and grocer’s associations.”
  • And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) are working at the federal level to introduce legislation to “standardize dates on food to reduce waste and keep people from throwing out food that’s safe to eat.”

In addition, a “Save the Food” campaign was recently launched to help consumers understand that food waste is a big problem. “The Save the Food campaign highlights the fact that food is the largest component of solid trash in landfills and 25 percent of freshwater is used to grow food that will get scrapped,” Health Line adds.

Okay, so be honest—how many of you pay attention to the dates on containers? Do you end up wasting food because the “good by” date has passed? Do you use the smell test to figure out if food is still edible?

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Image of woman checking an expiration date via Shutterstock