According to a recent Harvard study, The Dating Game, badly
regulated and poorly understood food labelling contributes to an
enormous, avoidable waste of food, and associated energy and
emissions.The study is focused on the US food labelling
requirements, and the resulting impact on the American food system.
However, its conclusions are likely equally applicable in Canada.
The waste of edible food by consumers, retailers, and manufacturers
costs consumers and industry money; squanders important
natural resources that are used to grow, process, distribute,
and store that food ; and represents a missed opportunity to
feed millions of food insecure households. According to the
study, misinterpretation of the date labels on foods is a
key factor leading to this waste, and could be corrected with
clearer, more standardized and more relevant information. The
report says :
The lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state
and local variability in date labeling rules, has led to a
proliferation of diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices
in the food industry. Such inconsistency exists on multiple levels,
including whether manufacturers affix a date label in the first
place, how they choose which label phrase to apply, varying
meanings for the same phrase, and the wide range of methods by
which the date on a product is determined. The result is that
consumers cannot rely on the dates on food to consistently have the
This convoluted system is not achieving what date labeling was
historically designed to do—provide indicators of freshness.
Rather, it creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe,
mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food's microbial
safety, which unduly downplays the importance of more pertinent
food safety indicators.
This confusion also leads to considerable amounts of
avoidable food waste as the mistaken belief that pastdate foods are
categorically unsuitable for consumption causes consumers to
discard food prematurely.
Inconsistent date labeling policies and practices harm the
interests of manufacturers and retailers by creating increased
compliance burdens and food waste at the manufacturer/retail
Date labeling practices hinder food recovery and redistribution
efforts by making the handling of pastdate foods administratively
and legally complex.
Their recommendations seem common sense:
Make "sell by" dates invisible to the consumer:
"Sell by" dates generate confusion and offer consumers no
useful guidance once they have brought their purchases home.
Therefore, "sell by" and other date labels that are used
for stock control by retailers should be made invisible to
consumers. Products should only display dates that are intended to
communicate to the consumer.
Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing
dating system: The following five recommendations on how to
standardize and clarify date labels will help establish a more
effective system of consumer-facing dates that consumers can
understand and trust. The system should be consistent across
products to the extent it makes sense.
Establish standard, clear language for both quality-based and
safety-based date labels: The language used before dates on food
products should be clarified and standardized to better inform
consumers of the meaning of different dates. The words used should
(1) be uniform for a particular meaning across the country and
across products; (2) be unambiguous in the information they convey;
and (3) clearly delineate between safety-based and quality-based
Include "freeze by" dates and freezing
information where applicable: Promote the use of "freeze
by" dates on perishable food products to help raise consumer
awareness of the benefits of freezing foods and the abundance of
food products that can be successfully frozen in order to extend
Remove or replace quality-based dates on nonperishable,
shelf-stable products: Removing "best before" or other
quality dates from shelf-stable, nonperishable foods for which
safety is not a concern would reduce waste of these products and
increase the weight given to labels placed on products that do have
safety concerns. Some type of date may still be useful, such as an
indication of shelf life after opening (e.g. "Best within XX
days of opening") or the date on which the product was packed
(e.g., "Maximum quality XX months/years after pack
Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on
packages: Consumers should be able to easily locate and understand
date labeling information on packages, perhaps through the use of a
standard "safe handling" information box, akin to the
Nutrition Facts panel.
Is anyone in Canada listening?
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