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According to a recent Harvard study, The Dating Game, badly regulated and poorly understood food labelling contributes to an enormous, avoidable waste of food, and  associated energy and emissions.The study is focused on the US food labelling requirements, and the resulting impact on the American food system. However, its conclusions are likely equally applicable in Canada. The waste of edible food by consumers, retailers, and manufacturers costs consumers and industry money; squanders important natural resources that are used to grow, process, distribute, and store that food ; and represents a missed opportunity to feed  millions of food insecure households. According to the study, misinterpretation of the date labels on foods is a key factor leading to this waste, and could be corrected with clearer, more standardized and more relevant information. The report says :

  • The lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state and local variability in date labeling rules, has led to a proliferation of diverse and inconsistent date labeling practices in the food industry. Such inconsistency exists on multiple levels, including whether manufacturers affix a date label in the first place, how they choose which label phrase to apply, varying meanings for the same phrase, and the wide range of methods by which the date on a product is determined. The result is that consumers cannot rely on the dates on food to consistently have the same meaning.
  • This convoluted system is not achieving what date labeling was historically designed to do—provide indicators of freshness. Rather, it creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety, which unduly downplays the importance of more pertinent food safety indicators.
  •  This confusion also leads to considerable amounts of avoidable food waste as the mistaken belief that pastdate foods are categorically unsuitable for consumption causes consumers to discard food prematurely.
  • Inconsistent date labeling policies and practices harm the interests of manufacturers and retailers by creating increased compliance burdens and food waste at the manufacturer/retail level.
  • Date labeling practices hinder food recovery and redistribution efforts by making the handling of pastdate foods administratively and legally complex.

Their recommendations seem common sense:

  1. Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer: “Sell by” dates generate confusion and offer consumers no useful guidance once they have brought their purchases home. Therefore, “sell by” and other date labels that are used for stock control by retailers should be made invisible to consumers. Products should only display dates that are intended to communicate to the consumer.
  2. Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system: The following five recommendations on how to standardize and clarify date labels will help establish a more effective system of consumer-facing dates that consumers can understand and trust. The system should be consistent across products to the extent it makes sense.
  3. Establish standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels: The language used before dates on food products should be clarified and standardized to better inform consumers of the meaning of different dates. The words used should (1) be uniform for a particular meaning across the country and across products; (2) be unambiguous in the information they convey; and (3) clearly delineate between safety-based and quality-based dates.
  4.  Include “freeze by” dates and freezing information where applicable: Promote the use of “freeze by” dates on perishable food products to help raise consumer awareness of the benefits of freezing foods and the abundance of food products that can be successfully frozen in order to extend shelf life.
  5. Remove or replace quality-based dates on nonperishable, shelf-stable products: Removing “best before” or other quality dates from shelf-stable, nonperishable foods for which safety is not a concern would reduce waste of these products and increase the weight given to labels placed on products that do have safety concerns. Some type of date may still be useful, such as an indication of shelf life after opening (e.g. “Best within XX days of opening”) or the date on which the product was packed (e.g., “Maximum quality XX months/years after pack date”)
  6. Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages: Consumers should be able to easily locate and understand date labeling information on packages, perhaps through the use of a standard “safe handling” information box, akin to the Nutrition Facts panel.

Is anyone in Canada listening?

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