Food waste in America is at an all time high. The Covid pandemic and its aftermath have created a cultural shift in the way we think about food. In the beginning we became more conscious about the way we ate as Covid quarantines forced us to cook at home and rekindle are relationship with food. Into the third year post-pandemic many of us have given up and gone back to an eat-on-demand mentality that just gets us through our hunger. Our hybrid living lifestyle with employees working between home and office, students still learning remotely and people ordering more and more takeout translates into more food waste.
The United States discards more food than any other country in the world. According to the EPA, nearly 40 million tons (80 billion pounds) of food is discarded every year. Every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275, according to a 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Feeding America reported that before COVID-19, it was estimated 35 million people across America including 10 million children suffered from food insecurity. With so many people suffering from basic amounts of food, why do Americans waste so much of their food abundance? Understanding what causes food waste here and in other countries is complex with many factors to consider including socioeconomic disparities, cultural behaviors and ingrained habits. However confusion and misinformed beliefs contribute to the problem.
Food spoilage, whether real or perceived, is one of the biggest reasons people throw out food. More than 80% of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand food labels. Labels like “sell by”, “use by”, “expires on”, “best before” or “best by” are confusing to people and the public’s misunderstanding about them is a major contributor to wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, and food insecurity.
The history behind food labeling begins in the years following World War II, as American consumers increasingly moved away from shopping at small grocery stores and farms and toward rows of packaged foods on supermarket shelves. Over the years labeling became inconsistent and varied with a “best by” label on one product, a “sell by” label on another, and a “best if used before” label on a third. All with different meanings that the average consumer may not realize or understand with the misconception that all date labeling was linked directly to scientifically backed safety standards.
With rising food costs consumers are starting to recognize the problem that the myth of food labeling is contributing to the distressing truth of America's food waste problems. Educating yourself on food labeling whether on nutrition facts, natural vs organic certification, GMO verification or date labeling is truly important not only to your health and well-being but for the benefit of our future food production and distribution and for the protection of the limited resources of our planet. Lets do our part to reduce unnecessary food waste by making more informed decisions about buying, storing and preparing our food.
Here is a brief glossary of food labeling terms from the NHS and the Institute of Food Technologists and click on this video presentation highlighting the impact of food waste.
Best before - Best by: These dates are about quality, not safety.This is a suggestion to the consumer on which date the product should be consumed to assure for ideal quality. When the date is passed, it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.
Use-By: This label is aimed at consumers as a directive of the date by which the product should be eaten; mostly because of quality, not because the item will necessarily make you sick if eaten after the use-by date. However after the use-by date, product quality is likely to go down much faster and safety could be lessened. For the "use by" date to be a valid guide, you must follow storage instructions. Once a food with a "use by" date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions, such as "eat within 3 days of opening".
Sell-By: This label is aimed retailers, and it informs them of the date by which the product should be sold or removed from shelf life. This does not mean that the product is unsafe to consume after the date. Typically one-third of a product's shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.