The case for greater government involvement in any industry, whether banking or health care, is not always obvious and is often unconvincing. Not so the case for more oversight of the contents of your refrigerator.
Those ubiquitous “sell by” dates on thousands of U.S. food products are almost completely arbitrary. They cost Americans hundreds of millions of dollars a year in wasted food. And by lulling consumers into a false sense of security that what they eat and drink is safe, these labels may also be dangerous.
Sell-by dates and their kin — “best if used by,” “freshest before” and “freeze by” dates — came into being in the 1970s out of an understandable desire to avoid foodborne illness. But the evidence is clear that the resulting system is remarkably haphazard, with Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and many states overseeing a hodgepodge of rules and regulations but no firm guidelines. Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have rules on dating food, yet there have been no authoritative studies to determine whether consumers in those states are safer than those in the other 30. Sometimes the rules are sublimely ridiculous: New Hampshire mandates a sell-by date for cream but not for milk.
Food poisoning is a problem, of course. But so is food waste — and by some estimates, Americans throw away 40 percent of the food they buy, or about 20 pounds per person per month. The average household throws away $275 to $455 a year worth of edible food because of freshness-date confusion. According to a study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, more than 60 percent of Americans refer to the “use by” or “sell by” date when deciding when to discard a carton of milk.
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What’s needed is some sort of consistent standard of labeling across the 50 states. It’s not as outlandish as it seems — the so-called “Schumer box,” which standardizes the display (and even type size) of rates and penalties in credit-card offers, has worked well.
One idea is to codify labeling practices nationally and replacing “use by” or “sell by” dates on fresh products with “freshest before.” To ensure that consumers understand that this is not an expiration date, retailers could post signs in their fresh-food sections. It would also help if the placement of labels were standardized, so consumers didn’t have to hunt around on the package to find them. Consumers should also know that many foods past their freshness dates can safely be frozen.
The waste problem hasn’t been totally ignored in Washington. To help educate consumers on waste, the Environmental Protection Agency launched the Food Recovery Challenge program, and the USDA created a smartphone app called FoodKeeper. There is even a bill in Congress that would establish a national standard for dating food.
But with Congress prone to inertia and the industry hesitant to make major changes, the bill hasn’t gained much traction. That’s too bad. A more coherent and consistent labeling system makes sense for all Americans — including members of Congress. After all, elected officials have to eat, too.