The Dating Game: Harvard FLPC and NRDC Publish Comprehensive Report on Food Expiration Dates

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pleased to announce the release of a comprehensive report, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America. This report presents a first-of-its-kind legal analysis of the confusing and piecemeal laws and practices impacting date labels, and lays out a blueprint calling on food industry actors and policymakers to create a better system that would help us maximize our food budgets, reduce food waste, and improve food safety in the United States.

Food waste is a significant problem in the United States. Estimates suggest that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten – resulting in waste of at least 160 billion pounds of food each year. At the same time, nearly 15 percent of U.S. residents struggle to put food on the table. Redistributing only 30 percent of the food wasted in the United States could completely eliminate food insecurity in the United States.

As evidenced by a range of industry, governmental, and NGO reports, confusion over food expiration dates–for example, “best by,” “use by,” and “sell by” labels–is a key cause of the high and rising rates of waste in the United States. With the exception of infant formula, the federal government does not have any standardized laws or regulations regarding date labels on food products. Because of the lack of federal oversight, states regulate the use of these labels in a wide variety of ways, causing great confusion. This inconsistent system leads both food retailers and consumers to discard food that is perfectly safe to sell or eat, and results in economic losses and inefficiencies for food producers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, as well as substantial challenges for anti-hunger organizations and others who seek to utilize food that otherwise may be wasted.

After providing a history of date labeling in the U.S. and analyzing the problems created by these labels, The Dating Game makes recommendations calling on the most influential date label enforcers – food industry actors and policymakers – to standardize and clarify food date labeling. Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Making “sell by” dates invisible to consumers, as they indicate business-to-business labeling information and are mistakenly interpreted as safety dates;
  • Establishing a more uniform, easily understandable date label system that communicates clearly with consumers by 1) using consistent, unambiguous language; 2) clearly differentiating between safety- and quality-based dates; 3) predictably locating the date on package; 4) employing more transparent methods for selecting dates; and other changes to improve coherency;
  • Increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels” that use technology to provide additional information on the product’s safety.

This report comes at a time when food waste and food insecurity concerns have been at the forefront of national and international news. Because the number of foods bearing date labels voluntarily or under state regulations is rising, this waste and confusion is likely to continue to grow. We need a standardized, commonsense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent and piecemeal system we have today. Improving and standardizing the convoluted and ineffective system of date labels to actually provide useful information to consumers would help to reduce food and resource waste, improve economic outcomes, and improve food safety.

The NRDC has created a website on which to continue the discussion of food waste in the U.S. To participate in this national conversation, please visit:  http://www.nrdc.org/food/expiration-dates.asp.

To read the full report, please click here: The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America

To read the shorter issue brief on this topic, click here: The Dating Game: How Confusing Date Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash

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