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Americans Waste Good Food Due to Confusing Labels, Report Finds

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WASHINGTONMisinterpreting expiration dates on food labels, Americans are prematurely discarding billions of pounds of groceries, researchers said today.

It is estimated the average home of four is losing up to $455 annually on food that is needlessly thrown away. Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that Americans are discarding $165 billion of food annually representing a whopping 40 percent of the food supply. 

In reliance on the "sell by" date, more than 90 percent of consumers occasionally trash food due to a mistaken belief that the product is unsafe to eat, the NRDC and Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic divulged today in a report.

Various labels such as "sell by", "use by" and "best before" are ambiguous to consumers, researchers argued, contributing to misperceptions that a food has spoiled and is unsafe to eat. "Sell by" and "best before" dates indicate a manufacturer's estimate of a date after which the food will longer retain its maximum quality, the researchers said.

According to the report, inconsistent state labeling regulations are contributing to the confusion and wasted food. Forty one states require date labels on at least some foods while nine states impose no such requirements, Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the report and director of Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic, told reporters on a conference call. Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. have the strictest laws, she said.   

Date labels may actually increase risks to consumers because they are under the mistaken impression that food eaten prior to the date is safe to eat without considering other factors such as its handing, storage and treatment, Leib indicated.

Dr. Ted Labuza, a food safety expert and professor of Food Science and Engineering at University of Minnesota, pointed out that food may be contaminated with pathogens well before the expiration date.

Researchers are recommending that labels include clear and understandable language and hide "sell by" dates since these dates aren't thought to be meaningful to consumers. The dates should distinguish between safety and quality, Dana Gunders, NRDC staff scientist with the food and agriculture program, told reporters.

Gunders said dates also should include information about safe handling of food. Dr. Labuza, who has been studying the shelf life of foods since the 1960s, said refrigerators should be kept under 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, he pointed out that the pathogen Listeria can grow at refrigerated temperatures.

The food industry could implement the label changes, but Gunders indicated such a uniform system would not be possible unless everyone is on board with the idea.

She told reporters NRDC has held preliminary discussions with members of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and others.

FMI research concurs that there needs to more and better education for consumers about the intent of the product dates and how best to use them," said David Fikes, FMI Vice President of Consumer Affairs, in a statement. "We are collaborating with industry partners and working with consumer and sustainability interests to find a solution that meets the needs of consumers, food manufacturers and food retailers.

Federal regulations or legislation also could help clear up the confusion, according to the report.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture already have the authority to regulate date labels because they are misleading; but with the exception of infant formula, the federal agencies have imposed no regulations in this area, the researchers said.

In a press release today, Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York announced plans to reintroduce legislation (Freshness Disclosure Act) that "will help establish a consistent food dating system in the United States and protect American consumers."

"It is alarming that the United States still has no federal law requiring expiration dates on food products," Lowey, a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said. "This important new study makes clear the consequences of not having a uniform standard for dating perishable food: consumers are unable to make informed choices."

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