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Confusing packages lead to wasted food, money

Emily M. Broad Leib directs the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. Here are excerpts from a recent Kiplinger interview with Leib regarding food packaging:

In your recent study “The Dating Game,” you argue that date labels on food are misleading and unclear, and Americans throw away billions of pounds of food as a result. What is this costing us?

We know a family of four spends between $1,365 and $2,275 per year on food that is wasted. A study out of the United Kingdom found 20 percent of total household food waste was caused just by confusion over dates – not because food went bad or was inedible. And over a billion dollars worth is thrown away annually in the U.S. before it even gets to consumers because of expiration dates. Retailers don’t sell the items, and as a result, they bump up the prices on other food items.

Why are the labels confusing?

People believe expiration dates are related to safety. But the dates are not defined by law; they’re a manufacturer’s best guess of when the food is at peak quality. There’s no saying a few days later it won’t still be at top quality. The “sell by” date in particular leads to waste because it’s an indicator from manufacturers to retailers that they can sell food up to this date and it’s still going to be fresh for consumers. But people can generally add on five to seven days to that date.

What can we do to avoid throwing out edible food?

Expiration dates can provide some guidance. But for foods such as milk and cheese, first smell them or taste a tiny bit. If the food doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it. Foods such as cereal and crackers might get stale, and you can choose whether or not you want to eat them, but they’re not unsafe. People get really nervous about meat and poultry. But if they go bad and smell before you cook them, that should be your indicator.

How can we make the most of our food budgets?

Plan meals in advance and think about how to use leftovers. People forget how many things you can freeze successfully. And they don’t keep refrigerators cool enough; that leads to a lot of waste. Shelf-life guides such as the Food Marketing Institute’s “Food Keeper” guide and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Kitchen Companion Safe Food Handbook” are helpful.

What do you make of retail outlets for expired foods that are springing up, such as the one planned by former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch, in Boston?

You can get good bargains by buying food past their dates, if you’re willing to take the risk that food will not be at top quality. But remember that these dates are about quality and not safety, so they are not a safety risk.