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Reducing Food Waste Through Consumer Education, Part 1

Written by Jabari Brown,  J.D. Candidate 2017 at the University of Oregon School of Law, and Summer 2016 intern in the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic


Image from epa.gov.

As we waste food, we waste money. Overall, our nation wastes a total of 40% of all food produced. The problem of food waste is both a national and individual issue. Across the nation, 1.3% of our GDP, or $218b, is thrown out each year in the form of wasted food, according to the ReFed Report, which provides a roadmap to reducing U.S. food waste by 20 percent. Out of this total, food thrown out at home represents 0.85% of our GDP, or $144b.

It follows that the solutions require both national and individual efforts. One of the most cost effective changes we can make on the household level is to standardize expiration date labels.  The Dating Game report, published by the Harvard Law School Food and Law Policy Clinic (FLPC) and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), found that consumer confusion over expiration date labels is a primary contributor to food waste. With our current expiration date system, it is hard to tell if a piece of cheese will be spoiled, or simply taste less fresh after a certain period of time. Expiration dates on food have no national regulatory standard and agencies have failed to exercise their statutory authority to create a uniform standard. The current system of date labeling is regulated state-by-state. There is little distinction between quality and safety.

Interestingly, most foods, when stored properly, are safe to eat for a long time past the expiration date, yet this information is not clearly communicated to consumers. Some foods are unsafe to eat past their expiration date, but unstandardized date labels and lack of consumer education cause confusion as to which foods are safe or unsafe to eat after their label date. So, there needs to be a combination of both – a national standard for expiration date labels followed with robust consumer education – to address national food waste.


FLPC Director Emily Broad Leib at a press conference in support of the Food Date Labeling Act with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (l) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (r).

Efforts are underway to revamp this esoteric, piecemeal approach to date labeling. Emily Broad Leib, Director of FLPC, testified at the first ever House Agricultural Committee Hearing held on the issue of food waste on May 25th, 2016, and was joined by a host of industry, non-profit, and Congressional professionals who all agreed that national, uniform labeling standards for expiration dates are a good thing. Just a few days prior to the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act. This act aims to reduce food waste by establishing a national, uniform system for food expiration date labels and following through with consumer education. Creating uniform labels while eliminating consumer confusion is an active, essential step toward reducing food waste.

While watching the hearing, I immediately thought: how can consumers be educated about the meaning of date labels in a way that reduces food waste? Even with a simple labeling solution, we owe strong consideration to the human element. During the House hearing, Congressman Scott from Georgia’s 13th district touched on this point when he asked, “How do you change human behavior?” Congressman Walz agreed, “This is an attitude issue as much as it is a logistics [issue].” Implied in these statements is the concern that a new label alone will not change consumers’ behavior with respect to food waste, something more is needed.

Part 2 to be posted Monday.

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