Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic study: Food sell-by-dates are often bogus and not based on fact

12 Oct

Here’s today’s COMMENT FROM AN OLD FART: Moi read with interest the UPI report, Sniffing out the meaning in ‘Sell by’ dates:

Hold on before dumping that gallon milk down the sink; just because it’s past the “sell-by” date doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be thrown out.

More than 90 percent of U.S. consumers may be wasting money and prematurely throwing away perfectly good food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic said.

The report called for changes in the way food manufacturers label their products.

“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, staff scientist with the NRDC’s food and agriculture program. “Phrases like ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”

The study, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” is a follow-up to a 2012 NRDC report that found as much as 40 percent of the U.S. food supply ends up in the garbage each year.

The report found 91 percent of consumers occasionally throw food away based on the “sell by” date out of a mistaken concern for food safety even though none of the date labels actually indicates food is unsafe to eat.

An estimated 160 billion pounds of food is trashed in the United States every year, making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.

“Sell by” dates are used by grocery stores to determine when their stock should be rotated, they do not indicate the food is bad on that date. “Best before” and “use by” dates are intended for consumers, but they usually just estimate peak quality, again not an accurate date of spoiling or an indication that food is unsafe…
http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Consumer-Corner/2013/10/06/Sniffing-out-the-meaning-in-Sell-by-dates/UPI-87551381053540/#ixzz2hXRPlcdL

That reminds moi of:

“There’s a sucker born every minute” is a phrase often credited to P. T. Barnum (1810–1891), an American showman. Though this phrase is often credited to Barnum, it was more likely spoken by a man by the name of David Hannum, who was criticizing both Barnum and his customers.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There’s_a_sucker_born_every_minute

No matter who said it, we are all suckers of planned obsolescence.

According to the Economist article, Planned obsolescence:

Planned obsolescence is a business strategy in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete—that is, unfashionable or no longer usable) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception. This is done so that in future the consumer feels a need to purchase new products and services that the manufacturer brings out as replacements for the old ones. http://www.economist.com/node/13354332

So, the sell-by-dates are not based upon scientific fact, but a random guess. The real question is how the public fights the theory of planned obsolescence?

Addison Del Mastro posts the following suggestions at the PERC Blog in Planned Obsolescence: The Good and the Bad:

Consumer education

Consumer education is a relatively easy way to resist pseudo-functional obsolescence. The first goal of consumer education is simply to make consumers aware that pseudo-functional obsolescence actually exists. Many of us know very little about how our products really work, and so it can be hard for the average consumer to tell the difference between true innovation and pseudo-functional obsolescence. Providing this information is not always easy. Sometimes, identifying pseudo-functional obsolescence requires very specific knowledge of a product. But sometimes it’s easier, as in the case of the laptop chargers mentioned above. The electrical specs are what really determine compatibility. If the specs are the same but the plugs are different, it’s fairly easy to identify this as pseudo-functional obsolescence. Once consumers are aware of pseudo-functional obsolescence, they can buy better products from better companies. But in addition to making smarter choices in the marketplace, consumers can also address their complaints directly to companies. If all of our complaints actually reached the businesses responsible, this would undoubtedly have a positive impact on their business practices.

Promote voluntary industry standards

Voluntary industry standards are often so widely accepted that we hardly think of them as specifically chosen standards – instead it seems like it’s simply the way things are. For example, the 110 volt household current system in the United States is a standard first promoted by Thomas Edison. Later on, the size and shape of the home electric plug was standardized by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and the American National Standards Institute. If we step back and think about it, it really is incredible that a 70-year-old electric appliance still operates in a modern home’s electric system.Yet it is not hard to imagine things turning out differently. In the beginning there were competing electrical systems, and without standardization things might have remained this way. Different homes could have been built with different systems, meaning that if you moved to a new home, you would have to replace every electric item you owned. There could have been several different sizes and shapes of electric plugs too. Old plug sizes might have eventually been retired and replaced with “improved” models, so if you needed to replace a socket in your home it wouldn’t match all the rest.This sounds rather ridiculous, but only because the industry standards in home electricity have served us so well. Industry standards in the electronics industry for items like chargers and batteries could go a long way towards saving resources and improving product usability for consumers.Freely adopted industry standards allow us to use an electrical appliance from decades ago in a modern home. Industry standards in electronics would allow us to use last year’s charger in this year’s laptop. Is that really too much to ask of the electronics companies?The free market is powerful and beneficial, but an efficient market requires knowledge. Once consumers become informed about planned obsolescence — the good and the bad — they can better use the market to buy more efficient products. This will benefit consumers, responsible businesses, and the environment.

http://perc.org/blog/planned-obsolescence-good-and-bad#sthash.1oALS3Kq.dpuf

Right now, ALL of us are getting killed as much by what we don’t know. Those who use planned obsolescence as a business strategy are counting on our ignorance and lack of knowledge as members of the public. Moi is one of those who felt that the sell-by-dates were sacrosanct. Time to ask more questions. In the meanwhile, many producers are counting on there is a sucker born every minute.

Here is the press release:

Main page | Archive

Press contact: Jackie Wei, jwei@nrdc.org, 310-434-2325 or (cell) 347-874-8305

If you are not a member of the press, please write to us at nrdcinfo@nrdc.org or see our contact page

New Report: Food Expiration Date Confusion Causing up to 90% of Americans to Waste Food

NRDC & Harvard Reveal Costs of Mass Consumer Confusion; Offer New Plan for Commonsense Food Date Labeling

NEW YORK (September 18, 2013) – U.S. consumers and businesses needlessly trash billions of pounds of food every year as a result of America’s dizzying array of food expiration date labeling practices, which need to be standardized and clarified, according to a new report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. One key finding from an industry-conducted survey: More than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety.

“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, NRDC staff scientist with the food and agriculture program. “Phrases like ‘sell by’, ’use by’, and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”

NRDC and Harvard Law’s study, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America is a first-of-its-kind legal analysis of the tangle of loose federal and state laws related to date labels across all 50 states and presents recommendations for a new system for food date labeling. The report is a follow-up to NRDC’s 2012 Wasted report, which revealed that Americans trash up to 40 percent of our food supply every year, equivalent to $165 billion.

For the vast majority of food products, manufacturers are free to determine date shelf life according to their own methods. The report finds that the confusion created by this range of poorly regulated and inconsistent labels leads to results that undermine the intent of the labeling, including:

False Notions that Food is Unsafe – 91 percent of consumers occasionally throw food away based on the “sell by” date out of a mistaken concern for food safety even though none of the date labels actually indicate food is unsafe to eat;
Consumer Confusion Costs – an estimated 20 percent of food wasted in U.K. households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. Extending the same estimate to the U.S., the average household of four is losing $275-455 per year on food needlessly trashed;
Business Confusion Costs – an estimated $900 million worth of expired food is removed from the supply chain every year. While not all of this is due to confusion, a casual survey of grocery store workers found that even employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates;
Mass Amounts of Wasted Food – The labeling system is one factor leading to an estimated 160 billion pounds of food trashed in the U.S. every year, making food waste the single largest contributor of solid waste in the nation’s landfills.
Two main categories of labeling exist for manufacturers: those intended to communicate among businesses and those for consumers. But they are not easily distinguishable from one another and neither is designed to indicate food’s safety. “Sell by” dates are a tool for stock control, suggesting when the grocery store should no longer sell products in order to ensure the products still have shelf life after consumers purchase them. They are not meant to communicate with consumers, nor do they indicate the food is bad on that date. “Best before” and “use by” dates are intended for consumers, but they are often just a manufacturer’s estimate of a date after which food will no longer be at peak quality; not an accurate date of spoiling or an indication that food is unsafe. Consumers have no way of knowing how these “sell by” and “use by” dates have been defined or calculated since state laws vary dramatically and companies set their own methods for determining the dates, none of which helps to improve public health and safety.

“We need a standardized, commonsense date labeling system that actually provides useful information to consumers, rather than the unreliable, inconsistent and piecemeal system we have today,” said Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the report and director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. “This comprehensive review provides a blueprint calling on the most influential date label enforcers – food industry actors and policymakers – to create and foster a better system that serves our health, pocketbooks and the environment.”

Use of expiration dates for food stem from consumer unease about food freshness mounting over the 20th century, as Americans left farms and lost their connection to the foods they consume. By 1975, a nationwide survey of shoppers showed 95% of respondents considered date labels to be the most useful consumer service for addressing freshness. The widespread concern prompted over 10 congressional bills introduced between 1973-1975 alone, to establish requirements for food dating. During that time, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report to Congress advocating a uniform national date labeling system to avoid confusion. Despite GAO’s prophetic advice, none of the legislative efforts gained enough momentum to become law. Instead, the 1970s began the piecemeal creation of today’s fractured American date labeling regime.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture have the power to regulate food labeling to ensure consumers are not misled, both agencies have failed to adequately exercise their authority. FDA does not require food companies to place any date labels on food products, leaving the information entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. The only product for which a date is federally regulated is infant formula.

Food producers and retailers can begin to adopt the following recommended changes to date labels voluntarily but government steps, including legislation by Congress and more oversight by FDA and USDA, should be considered as well:

Making “sell by” dates invisible to consumers, as they indicate business-to-business labeling information and are mistakenly interpreted as safety dates;
Establishing a more uniform, easily understandable date label system that communicates clearly with consumers by 1) using consistent, unambiguous language; 2) clearly differentiating between safety- and quality-based dates; 3) predictably locating the date on package; 4) employing more transparent methods for selecting dates; and other changes to improve coherency;
Increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels” that use technology to provide additional information on the product’s safety.
“The scale of food waste worldwide is one of the most emblematic examples of how humanity is needlessly running down its natural resources. This new report comes on the heels of one compiled by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which points out that 28 percent of the world’s farmland is being used to produce food that is not eaten–an area larger than China,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director. “Everyone, every business, every city, state and government should do something to tackle this wastage to help reduce the global Foodprint.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Read the full issue brief here: http://www.nrdc.org/food/expiration-dates.asp or FixFoodDates.com
NRDC’s blog series on food waste: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dgunders/
NRDC’s Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill report: http://www.nrdc.org/food/wasted-food.asp
UNEP and the FAO launched the Think Eat Save: Reduce Your Foodprint campaign in January 2013 – its partners include NRDC: http://www.thinkeatsave.org.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing. Visit us at http://www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, a division of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, is an experiential teaching program of Harvard Law School that links law students with opportunities to serve clients and communities grappling with various food law and policy issues. The Clinic strives to increase access to healthy foods, prevent diet-related diseases, and assist small and sustainable farmers and producers in participating in local food markets. For more information, visit http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/foodpolicyinitiative/

Where information leads to Hope. © Dr. Wilda.com

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Dr. Wilda ©

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