We’ve all done it: pulled a carton of milk from the fridge and looked at the date stamped on the side. The milk looks fine, but it’s three days overdue. Down the drain it goes. The same applies to stale bread and mottled bananas. Straight into the trash.
Farrah Masoumi, 21, said food waste is a problem. But she’s also confused about the actual meaning behind date labels.
“I think that expiration dates just give an estimation of around what time food will start to get a bit sketchy,” said Masoumi, a liberal studies senior at CSUN. “Usually the food in my house goes pretty quickly, so it’s rare if something is really close to the expiration date. When this does happen, I think it’s good for another two to three days after the date.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report as part of a lobbying effort to change the way consumers perceive the safety of their food by standardizing the food labeling system.
Misleading expiration dates on food can prompt consumers to throw away still-edible products out of fear of contracting food-borne illnesses, according the report. As a result shoppers are wasting money buying food they won’t eat and landfills are seeing an increase in food waste.
Instead of arbitrary terms like use by, best before, sell by, and enjoy by, the report recommends clarifying the meaning of the labels and adding food handling instructions for better protection.
The report also found that misinterpretation of labels was a key contributor to nine out of 10 people throwing away safe and edible food.
“The labels are important for consumers because when they see the labels they understand that there is somebody overseeing that their product is healthy,” said Mario Giraldo, assistant geography professor at CSUN. “But on the other hand, people are abusive about the labels. Because they see that a product has an expiration date, they’re throwing away food that is probably edible.”
The general misinterpretation of labels affects many of the products that consumers encounter daily. Coffee that is labeled organic may contain a chemically-based fertilizer, said Giraldo, who manages the composting program at CSUN’s Institute for Sustainability.
“Some people want to label organic and non-organic food, sustainable and non-sustainable food,” Giraldo said. “The problem with those labels is that people may think different things about those concepts. What are organic foods? And how organic is organic?”
The U.S. has seen a 50 percent increase of food waste since the 1970s according to the National Resources council defense. More than 20 million Americans could be feed annually if a 15 percent reduction in losses would occur in the U.S. food supply.
In addition to throwing away edible food based on date labels, an increase in waste is traced to consumers discarding produce based on looks. The report found that 40 percent of food grown in the U.S. is never actually eaten. Instead it’s discarded right at the farm, at the grocery store, or ends up in the kitchen trash solely because of its appearance.
“I think people’s biggest fear is that they’re going to get sick from something,” said Helen Cox, director of the Institute for Sustainability. “It’s the same way that a lot of people drink bottled water because they think it’s safer than tap water, and how do you convince people that it isn’t true? Well, you have to educate people about the source of both, the treatment of both, and testing of both, and why it’s simply just a myth.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in its 2012 food safety report a 14 percent increase in campylobacteriosis, a serious infectious disease causing diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever. The bacteria is associated with eating raw or undercooked meat, and cross-contamination like using the same cutting board for meat as well as lettuce.
There is no federal oversight of date labels on food products, according to the NRDC report. Instead each state and local municipality decide which products are labeled, as well as the exact wording of the label. California only requires the date labeling of dairy products and shellfish.
“You buy a salad and it has a date on it, but it doesn’t really need the date,” said Cox. “Because if you want to eat brown-looking, yucky lettuce, then you can. It probably won’t taste good, but it won’t harm you either. From that point of view, the only things that really need labeling are things that potentially could do damage, like meat.”
The amount of food wasted annually differs between countries according to a 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. While food waste in the U.S. and northern Europe is around 209-253 pounds per year, the food waste in Sub Saharan Africa and south/east Asia is less than 24 pounds per year.
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that per capita food waste in the US and northern Europe is 95-115 kg/year while in sub Saharan Africa and south/south East Asia it is 6-11 kg/year
Daniel Aguiar agrees that labeling meat products will inform consumers of safe cooking and handling methods. The senior mechanical engineering student at CSUN buys his groceries in small quantities and stores produce in the fridge or freezer to prevent spoilage. But he also said to use common sense when determining if a product has turned bad.
“If i feel that something is decaying very fast, or will take longer for me to eat, I would put in the freezer,” said 27-year-old Aguiar. “But again, relying on our nose and eyes is a very effective way to tell if something is edible or not.”
The burden of preventing food-borne illnesses has shifted from using common sense in the kitchen to relying on unregulated labeling of supermarket products.
“When I was a kid we didn’t have dates on things,” said Cox. “It’s part of the consumer protection advocacy. But on the other hand there comes a point where you’re no longer protecting them anymore, you’re doing them a disservice because you’re making them throw away things that are perfectly edible.”