Households are responsible for the majority of food waste.

Nearly 60 types of date labels appear on food and drinks in US stores.The confusion leads to the average family of four losing about $1,500 a year to uneaten food. Retailers like Amazon support a bill that would require two labels: “best if used by” and “use by.”

Before tossing that almond milk labeled “best before” March 2024, try the smell test. There’s a good chance it’s safe to drink and blend into smoothies.

Nearly 60 types of date labels appear on food and drinks in US grocery stores, but few convey useful information about quality or safety. The mixed messages have confused Americans for decades and are estimated to be responsible for about 7% of the 78 million tons of food wasted across the country, according to ReFed, a national nonprofit.

“Consumers ascribe more meaning to date labels than they should,” Tori Oto, a clinical fellow at the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, told Business Insider. “There is no federal regulation of date labels. It’s a state-by-state patchwork, or it’s up to the manufacturers’ discretion of what phrasing to use.” 

Clearing up the confusion can avoid food waste, save people money, and help tackle the climate crisis. Households are responsible for the majority of US food waste, and the Agriculture Department has estimated that the average family of four loses about $1,500 a year to uneaten food. Meanwhile, rotting food accounts for about 58% of the methane emissions from landfills.

Oto said labels should be cut down to two options: “best if used by,” to indicate the quality of the product, and “use by,” to signal when the product shouldn’t be consumed. Oto also argued for a consumer-education campaign; in a survey conducted in 2016, more than one-third of Americans suggested they usually threw food away if it was close to or past a date on the package. 

About three dozen members of Congress have sponsored legislation, known as the Food Date Labeling Act of 2023, that would require manufacturers to use only “best if used by” and “use by.” The bill also has support from 26 big-name retailers and brands including Whole Foods, Amazon, Kroger, Walmart, and Nestlé — the companies signed a letter to lawmakers in February encouraging them to pass the bill.

Danielle Melgar, a food and agriculture advocate at PIRG, an environmental watchdog group, said the endorsement from businesses marked a major shift from 2021, when the legislation was first introduced. Reducing food waste is a way for companies to make progress on their sustainability goals, Melgar added.

She and other supporters of the bill were handing out the letter to congressional offices last week in hopes of building momentum in Washington. These advocates said the main question from Republican lawmakers is whether the food industry supports the bill. 

The industry has voluntarily tried to streamline food date labeling. Kroger in 2019 said it would display only “use by” and “best if used by” to communicate food safety and quality, respectively, on dairy, deli, bakery, and fresh and frozen items. Walmart a few years earlier made a similar move for its private label. An industry trade association launched its own push in 2017.

But Oto argued that given how many labels still proliferate, it’s clear that a national standard is needed. 

“Voluntary initiatives were a great first start in socializing this idea of consumer confusion over date labels,” she said. “But we still see 60 different phrases in any given grocery store. So buy-in has to be more comprehensive.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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