Photograph by Chip Somodevilla, Getty

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A customer scans the expiration dates on gallons of milk at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla, Getty

In Battle Against Food Waste, Rethinking "Use By" Labels

Could changing food labels save millions of tons of good food from being thrown away?

LONDON—Everyone's done it: You reach into your fridge and pluck out something tasty that you've meaning to eat but had half-forgotten about, only to discover that its "best before" date passed a few days earlier.

What to do? If you're like many people, you let out a resentful sigh and toss it—better safe than sorry—and resolve to be more watchful, less wasteful, in the future.

But did you really need to throw away that perfectly good-looking (and good-smelling) wedge of manchego or container of ice cream?

Depending on what it was, and how well it was kept, probably not, says Emma Marsh, who leads Love Food Hate Waste, a U.K.-based group that's dedicated to tackling food waste. "More than half of the food we throw out is food we could have eaten," she says, referring to British consumers.

Food waste is a growing global concern, with 1.3 billion tons of food—as much as a third of the food that is produced on the globe each year, worth over $750 billion—going to waste each year, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Aside from the morality of such loss in a world where an estimated 800 million people go to bed hungry each night, the economic and environmental implications are staggering. More than a quarter of the world's agricultural land is being worked to grow food that nobody eats.

Consumer confusion and an understandable reluctance to eat something that might have gone "off" leads to millions of tons of perfectly good food being thrown away. Such waste costs a typical family in the U.K. and the United States roughly $1,500 a year, with the equivalent of six meals thrown out each week, according to Love Food Hate Waste. Fresh fruits and vegetables, drinks, and bakery goods are the most frequently wasted items.

On Thursday, the World Cold Chain Summit to Reduce Food Waste convened here to explore ways that the cold chain—refrigerated transport and storage facilities—can be made more efficient to keep food fresh and minimize loss and spoilage. While most of the food waste in the developing world comes from breakdowns in the cold chain and in the production and distribution of food, in middle- to upper-income countries it is the consumers themselves who account for as much as half of the waste.

A big part of the problem, University of Nottingham economics professor Wyn Morgan said at the summit, is that "food has become extremely cheap."

"My mother was of the war generation," he said, speaking on a panel. "She would not waste anything. She would look at something, and if it smelled right it was fine. [Today] we are much more willing to throw something out."

Getting Labels Right

A growing chorus of advocates is urging consumers to think twice before pitching food from the fridge.

"There are many points along the line when it could be saved—from buying just the right amount, to storing it properly, to freezing it before it reaches its use-by date, to finding imaginative ways of using odds and ends and leftovers in another meal," says Marsh. "Getting those things right means that the food doesn't have to go to waste."

Simple confusion over the wording of the various kinds of expiration dates on food products accounts for a significant percentage of avoidable food wastage, she says. "Use by," "best before," and "display until" all have different meanings, but for many consumers the calendar date they see is all that matters. Once that day has passed, the food goes in the trash bin.

"The 'best before' date relates to the quality of the food," says Marsh. It's a gauge of how long an item will remain at its freshest and tastiest, and is appropriate to the vast majority of foodstuffs on the supermarket shelves. In general, she says, "it is fine to eat foods after their 'best before' date, except for eggs, as long as they look, smell, and taste OK."

But that guidance can be tough to swallow both for the food industry and for consumers. "We are a much more risk-averse society" now than a generation ago, says the University of Nottingham's Morgan. "Retailers and manufacturers are worried about being sued, and we the public read about health scares, listeria, and E. coli and would just as soon throw anything out rather than take a risk."

Indeed, the "use by" date has definite safety implications, and it is applied to foods such as meat, fish, and chicken, which are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view. These are dates that should be strictly adhered to, Marsh says, regardless of how a product looks or smells.

Then there is the "display until" date, which is placed on packaging primarily to help supermarkets better manage their stock rotation and which has no real implications for consumers at all.

A big part of the challenge in reducing food waste is simply letting consumers know about these differences. "Solving this," says Morgan, "is a matter of behavioral economics and education."