Expiration Dates Contributing to Global Food Waste

Food waste is a huge issue all around the world. An estimated 8 million lbs of food are prematurely wasted every year, and many people don’t realize that they are throwing away perfectly good food. Studies show that, up to 25% of America’s freshwater, and almost 30% of the world’s agricultural land is used each year to produce food that goes to waste. Food waste is also the single largest component of waste in US landfills and has a massive carbon footprint.


(courtesy of The Week)

Some of this food waste can be contributed to the expiration dates that are stamped on a majority of the food we buy. There is some confusion about what those dates really mean and can lead people to throwing away food too early because most products are still safe to eat after their expiration date. Due to the confusion surrounding ‘sell-by’ or ‘use-by’ dates, a new analysis shows more than 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely, and 40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted, because of food dating.

The dates on food have very little to do with safety and are often there to protect the reputation of the food. Food dating began in the 1970’s because Americans wanted more information regarding their food. The dates indicate peak freshness, and expiring does not mean inedible. Package dates are unregulated by the federal government and can vary from state to state because there’s no standardization. The only exception is infant formula, which is federally regulated since the nutrients can lose their potency. For example, milk in Connecticut must have a ‘sell-by’ date of 12 days, and in Pennsylvania, it’s 14 days. The wording can be confusing, when one brand of milk says, ‘best before’, or ‘sell-by’, and some just have the date with no words at all. Manufacturers can come up with their own dates and own labels for their products, which can be misleading for consumers.

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(courtesy of General Mills, and NBC news)

You might be asking yourself about the fear of getting sick from food that has gone bad. The shelf life is not the issue, but whether or not the food is contaminated with salmonella, listeria bacteria, or E. coli. John Ruff, the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, told NPR, “In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of one that was driven by a shelf-life issue”. So while it is crucial to have expiration dates on food that has a high risk of contamination, such as meat and cheese, you’re more likely to get sick from contamination rather than spoilage.

Food waste is such a predominant issue in our society, but thankfully there are multiple solutions that can reduce the impact. The US Senate and House of Representatives have introduced bills that would change the labels on food, and have more standardization. There’s also a public service campaign, called Save The Food, which can help consumers with waste reduction tips and how to store food properly. The company ReFED is doing a great job with food waste prevention and showing solutions that can save food, alleviate hunger, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and more.


(courtesy of ReFED)



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8 responses to “Expiration Dates Contributing to Global Food Waste

  1. katieorlady

    I was shocked that 40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted. Do you think that federal regulation for all fresh food products could reduce this waste? Or is the food system in the U.S. too complicated and diverse to successfully implement standard federal regulation?


    • elsedodge

      Thank you for your feedback! I think that federal regulation for fresh food could definitely reduce some of the food waste. Although It is a very complicated system, it will take a lot of work and time to standardize food labeling, but I believe it can be successful if implemented correctly.


  2. It never dawned on me that so much food would be wasted due to expiration dates. There are a few things that I commonly ignore the dates for, like block cheese, most condiments, peanut butter and a few others. Many of them have such a long shelf life before they get opened that I don’t ever think about it. As for milk, I worked on a dairy farm that bottled its own milk, when I was young and I know that homogenized, pasteurized milk will be good for at least two weeks without being opened. I have milk delivered to my house that doesn’t have a date of any kind on it. We just make sure everything gets rotated and we’ve never had a problem.


    • elsedodge

      Thanks for your feedback! It is pretty concerning how much food gets wasted due to food labeling. That is interesting about the dairy farm you worked on!


  3. brittneymullane

    Yeah, it’s kind of sickening how much food gets wasted based on an arbitrary label. I mean, I’m definitely guilty of doing this practice! Do you think it’s feasible that the food industry will ever get rid of expiration dates/manufacturing labels? And I mean, not just having a more standardized practice, but ALL TOGETHER getting rid of them?


    • elsedodge

      Thanks for your feedback! That is an interesting question, I don’t think the food industry would ever fully get rid of expiration dates, just due to liability issues and facing the risk of being sued. But that is an interesting idea!


  4. amyquandt

    Interesting discussion! What is the status of the bills aimed at reducing this problem? Are they still being considered or have they been forgotten?


    • elsedodge

      Thanks! The status of the bills aimed at changing food date labels is still in progress. Congress currently has a bill titled, “Food Date Labeling Act of 2016” that will standardize food labeling, making it less confusing and will hopefully be enacted soon.


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