Use of expiration dates for food stem from consumer unease about food freshness mounting over the 20th century, as Americans left farms and lost their connection to the foods they consume. By 1975, a nation-wide survey of shoppers showed 95% of respondents considered date labels to be the most useful consumer service for addressing freshness. The wide-spread concern prompted over 10 congressional bills introduced between 1973-1975 alone, to establish requirements for food dating. During that time, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report to Congress advocating a uniform national date labeling system to avoid confusion. Despite GAO’s prophetic advice, none of the legislative efforts gained enough momentum to become law. Instead, the 1970s began the piecemeal creation of today’s fractured American date labeling regime.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have the power to regulate food labeling to ensure consumers are not misled, both agencies have failed to adequately exercise their authority. FDA does not require food companies to place any date labels on food products, leaving the information entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. The only product for which a date is federally regulated is infant formula.
Food producers and retailers can begin to adopt the following recommended changes to date labels voluntarily but government steps, including legislation by Congress and more oversight by FDA and USDA, should be considered as well:
- 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.
“The scale of food waste worldwide is one of the most emblematic examples of how humanity is needlessly running down its natural resources. This new report comes on the heels of one compiled by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which points out that 28 percent of the world’s farmland is being used to produce food that is not eaten – an area larger than China,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director. “Everyone, every business, every city, state and government should do something to tackle this wastage to help reduce the global Foodprint.”
Check the following link to read/download the Full Report:
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international non-profit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, their lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing. For more information, visit www.nrdc.org.
The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, a division of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, is an experiential teaching program of Harvard Law School that links law students with opportunities to serve clients and communities grappling with various food law and policy issues. The Clinic strives to increase access to healthy foods, prevent diet-related diseases, and assist small and sustainable farmers and producers in participating in local food markets. For more information, visit http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/foodpolicyinitiative/.