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Food waste could be greatly reduced with better labels

Food waste could be dramatically reduced by changing simple words about freshness on product labels, according to a new study led by Cornell University. Depending on the type of product, words like “best by” or “best if used by” can make a big difference in whether food is tossed out too early. 

“We developed a survey to collect information on consumers’ intentions to discard 15 food products when exposed to different date labels,” wrote the researchers. “Results show that the use of certain date labels has the capacity to reduce food waste, but the reductions would happen differentially across food groups.”

“Some consumers might do a sniff test to see if food is still good, while others might just look at the date label and throw it away,” said study senior author Professor Brad Rickard. He explained that most of the date labels used on food products in the United States are not even regulated. “And they’re not food safety dates; they’re just food quality dates.”

In particular, the researchers found that the words “use” or “use by” lead to an increase in food waste because these terms seem to imply that it may not be safe to consume foods beyond the established date. On the other hand, the words “best by” seem to refer to the perceived quality of a product beyond a certain date, which could lead to less food waste. 

“You go into the yogurt section at the grocery store, and you see many different labels – some say ‘use by,’ some say ‘best by,’ some say ‘best if used by’ or ‘fresh by,’ ‘sell by.’ And there are no rules about this.”

Professor Rickard said the motivation for this work stems from the “wild west” landscape of food date labels which is expected to be driven, in part, by manufacturers’ desire to sell more products. Last year, the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in an effort to reduce the discarding of safe food.

The study is published in the European Review of Agricultural Economics.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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