What next? Did you sling that yogurt into the trash? Pour the juice down the sink? You probably congratulated yourself on a lucky escape. After all, who knows what might have happened had you unwittingly consumed a food a few hours past its “sell by” date?
In fact, it’s likely you would never have noticed. Food date labels are typically unrelated to food safety. They are simply a manufacturer’s suggestions for “peak quality” and a shelf life they set by their own market standards. The dates don’t tell you when your food will spoil, nor do they indicate the safety of food.
A new date labels study released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic reveals that this mass confusion imposes costs on consumers and businesses and leads to a staggering amount of waste. In America, we throw away 40 percent of the food we produce every year. That’s nearly half our food — $165 billion dollars’ worth — in the garbage, instead of in our stomachs. Nine out of ten of us discard food — and likely are convinced we need to go out and buy more — because of the mistaken belief that the “sell by” date has a food safety implication for ourselves or our family.
It’s estimated that 160 billion pounds of food is dumped in the United States annually, in part due to this labeling confusion. That’s almost enough wasted food to fill up a football stadium every day. Discarded food is the biggest single contributor to solid waste in landfills. We’re throwing away perfectly good food at a time when one in six Americans is considered “food insecure,” meaning that they struggle to put food on their tables year-round. Globally, 28 percent of the world’s farmland is being used to produce food that is not being eaten. That’s an area bigger than China.