Food safety is a major concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually – the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Food waste is also a major concern. Wasted food is a huge challenge to our natural resources, our environment, and our pocketbooks:
Our resources? Each year getting food to U.S. tables requires:
• 80 percent of our freshwater,
• 10 percent of our available energy, and,
• Half of our land.
The environment? Organic waste, mostly food, is the second biggest component of landfills, and landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions. Methane is a major factor in global warming because it is so effective at absorbing the sun’s heat, which warms the atmosphere. And, finally, our pocketbooks: Between 30 and 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten – as much as 20 pounds of food per person per month. That means Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion in food each year.
How Food Waste and Food Safety Are Connected
The major sources of food waste in the United States are the food industry and consumers. Within the food industry, waste occurs at every step — on the farm and with packers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Some of it is the result of economic forces, some of management problems, and some is caused simply by dumping products that are less than perfect in appearance. But food waste by consumers may often result from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding of what food product dating actually means, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods.
What are Food Product Dates?
Many consumers misunderstand the purpose and meaning of the date labels that often appear on packaged foods. Confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste. Except for infant formula, manufacturers are not required by Federal law or regulation to place quality-based date labels on packaged food. There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for
open dating (calendar dates) in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used for product dating. FDA supports efforts by the food industry to make “Best if Used By” the standard phrase to indicate the date when a product will be at its best flavor and quality. Consumers should examine foods for signs of spoilage that are past their “Best if used by” date. If the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them. If you have questions or concerns about the quality, safety and labeling of the packaged foods you buy, you are encouraged to reach out to the company that produced the product. Many packaged foods provide the company’s contact information on the package. Manufacturers apply date labels at their own discretion and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the date to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor. Industry is moving toward more uniform practices for date labeling of packaged foods. But, for now, consumers may see different phrases used for product dating, such as Sell By, Best By, Expires on, etc.