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Food Date Labels Key to Curbing Food Waste, Climate Change, and Hunger

Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic research identifies policy opportunities to address critical global issues.

Food waste depletes natural resources, causes lasting environmental damage, and squanders an opportunity to redirect food to millions of people who are food insecure. Food donation offers a solution—it redirects safe, surplus food from the landfill to those who need it most, decreases food waste, and mitigates climate change.

Food date labels are a key driver of food waste and a significant obstacle to food donation. Generally intended to reflect how long the manufacturer believes the food will maintain its peak quality and flavor, food date labels are mistakenly interpreted as safety indicators. Because of this confusion, potential food donors mistakenly throw away safe, surplus food when a food item reaches the date on its label, or this food is refused by food recovery organizations, leading to more food waste.

The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and The Global FoodBanking Network published a new Issue Brief through The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas to help global leaders address the issue of food date labels. Promoting Food Donation: Expiration Date Labels shares three best practices designed to make food date labels less confusing, support food donation, reduce food waste, and limit climate change:

  1. National governments or governments of a common economic region should standardize to a dual date labeling scheme, clearly differentiating between a quality-based and safety-based date label.
  2. National laws should expressly permit the sale or donation of food past a quality-based date label.
  3. National governments and their relevant departments should launch widespread consumer education campaigns on the meaning of date labels for businesses, food safety officials, and consumers, in partnership with the private sector to maximize the effectiveness of the date labeling scheme.

“Many of us have been confused by food date labels and mistakenly discarded healthy, safe food, as have grocery stores, restaurants, food distributors, and food recovery organizations,” said Emily Broad Leib, clinical professor of law and faculty director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “National policies that standardize and clarify date labels, which are reflected in the best practices our research identified, are proven to not only reduce food waste but also save money, encourage food donation, and limit climate change.”  

“Ambiguous food date labels contribute to the estimated 17 percent of total food production that is wasted in grocery stores, restaurants, and homes,” said Douglas O’Brien, GFN’s vice president of Programs. “Clear, well-publicized date labeling policies would support food retailers in reducing food waste and help food banks connect more safe, surplus food to people facing hunger.”

Further discussion of these recommendations can be found in the Issue Brief, part of The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas co-produced by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Global FoodBanking Network. The Atlas promotes strong food donation policies as global solutions to hunger and food loss and waste, analyzes and compares national laws, and offers tailored recommendations to clarify and optimize food donation.

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