Most Americans judge the freshness of food not by tasting or sniffing it, but by looking at the expiration or "sell by" date printed on the packaging. Although this may seem to make sense, these dates are often poor indicators of when food is no longer safe to consume, and using them as an excuse to toss produce, milk and other products leads to a staggering amount of food waste.
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School recently published a report on the topic, which states that dates printed on food packaging aren't standardized by the government or any regulatory body. Typically, they're only meant to indicate to grocery stores when food is at its peak freshness, not when it becomes unsafe to consume.
As a result of this and other inefficient consumption practices, Americans waste 40 percent of their food, totaling $165 billion a year that is simply thrown in the trash or dump. The rest of the world isn't much better: Nearly one-third of the global food supply is tossed out, leading to 3.3 gigatons of carbon emissions when it sits in a landfill decomposing.
The NRDC has a few policy prescriptions that would lead to a better system for indicating food expiration:
- Make sell-by dates on packaging invisible to customers.
- Replace them with a standardized system, regulated by the FDA, to determine the actual expiration dates of foods. This should also include "freeze by" information.
Given how many people throughout the world continue to live in hunger and poverty, it is imperative that agriculture industries make more concerted efforts to limit waste and encourage more efficient allocation of food supplies.