How Expiration Dates Increase Food Waste

If you've ever been confused by the date labels that say "use by," "expires on," and "sell by" — you're not alone. At just the household level, confusion over date labels causes 1⁄₅ of all food waste and that's not even including all from grocery stores, restaurants, and food manufacturers. A massive amount of food is wasted in America every year. In total, nearly a quarter of all food, 54 million tons, is wasted annually in the U.S. alone. To put this in better perspective, this is equivalent to nearly 90 billion meals (via ReFed).

Not all labels are related to food safety. Some are linked to quality, while others are simply reminders for grocery store employees to rotate stock, per Vox. In the U.S., labels vary by state, which explains why there may be so much confusion. For instance, pasteurized milk must be sold within 12 days in Montana, but within 17 days in Pennsylvania, yet in New Hampshire, sell-by dates are only placed on cream, not milk (per Food Tank). The U.S. has no federal laws regulating the way labels are phrased or used, and this contributes to consumer confusion — and massive food waste.

How to minimize food waste

Fixing date labels could help significantly reduce food waste. While the U.S. has no national guidelines, other countries have curbed food waste by standardizing labels. Per the Global Food Donation Policy Atlas, regulations in the United Kingdom call for date labels that distinguish between "use by" dates indicating food safety and "best before" dates indicating food quality, to help consumers avoid throwing out still-good food. This, combined with public awareness campaigns, helped drop household food waste by 11% in the past few years.

However, similar policy efforts in the U.S. haven't taken hold. In 2019, a pair of bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to standardize food date labeling in a similar two-label system, but they didn't move to a vote.

In the meantime, you can make a difference by relying on a tried and true technique — the smell test. This is what the UK supermarket chain, Morrisons, is asking of its customers as they will eliminate "use by" dates on 90 percent of the milk they sell. Morrisons is encouraging customers to sniff the milk to make sure it's still good to drink (per The Guardian).  

You can also heed the advice of chefs like José Andrés and Andrew Zimmern who advocate for repurposing and freezing leftovers that are still delicious to eat, which helps cut down on food waste.