How confusing labels contribute to food waste

Food waste in a bin
Foerster | Public Domain
Wasted food in a bin

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Alexandra Schoettler

Summer Intern, CALPIRG

We’re all familiar with the little labels that come on most food we buy—they tell us when it’s safe to consume each product. But maybe, when you’ve been cleaning out your refrigerator or preparing your lunch, you’ve wondered, “If it’s past its ‘Sell By’ date, is it safe to eat? What about ‘Best By’? What if it’s labeled ‘freshest on’ a certain day?” Unsure what the different labels meant, maybe you decided to risk it, or, more likely, you chose to throw away that product. Confusion over labeling is a problem that could cause harm to consumers and greatly contributes to our country’s food waste issue. 

How serious is our food waste problem?

The United States throws away about 35% of its total food supply every year. This is problematic for many reasons. For one thing, the food that consumers and grocery stores throw away could be used to feed hungry families, but are instead getting sent to landfills. For another, throwing away food means wasted resources – the land, energy, water, and care that went into producing that food in the first place. And critically, when food gets sent to landfills and burned, it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Food waste is responsible for about 4% of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, food loss and waste in the US adds up to about 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. This is about equal to the annual emissions of 42 coal power plants. Food waste is also the most common material sent to landfills and incinerated in the US. The more food we throw away, the more we’re contributing to the worsening state of our climate. 

How do food labels impact food waste?

Currently, food labels say many different  things, like “Best By,” “Use By,” and “Sell By.” They all mean slightly different things, but there’s no consistency in when they’re used and little explanation of their meanings. So, consumers can become confused. For example, the “Sell By” label is actually meant to be an indicator to grocery store staff so that they know when the item should be taken off the shelves for inventory reasons—but the food is still perfectly safe to eat after the “Sell By” date. The “Best By” label tells consumers when the food is going to be the freshest and best tasting, but doesn’t indicate when the food is no longer safe to eat. 

These labels understandably cause confusion, and that confusion leads to people throwing away food that could still safely be consumed. We know that 10% of wasted food is due to consumer confusion, which accounts for $29 billion in food. If the food labeling was more clear and reliable, significantly less food would be thrown away. which would make an important impact on the food waste issue in our country. 

We need uniform food labeling

There is currently a bill in the California State Legislature, AB 660 by Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, that would standardize food labeling in the state, requiring food items to have a “Best By” or “Use By” date to indicate quality or safety, respectively. Grocery stores would no longer be able to label their food items with only a “Sell By” date, which is a label that doesn’t tell consumers anything about the safety of the item. This would make it much clearer what food items are safe to eat and what needs to be thrown away. 

This bill would help to protect and inform consumers, save us money, reduce food waste, and stop some of the confusion we all feel when deciding which products to toss or keep.

Join us in advocating for AB 660, to protect consumers and our environment. 

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Authors

Jenn Engstrom

State Director, CALPIRG

Jenn directs CALPIRG’s advocacy efforts, and is a leading voice in Sacramento and across the state on protecting public health, consumer protections and defending our democracy. Jenn has served on the CALPIRG board for the past two years before stepping into her current role. Most recently, as the deputy national director for the Student PIRGs, she helped run our national effort to mobilize hundreds of thousands of students to vote. She led CALPIRG’s organizing team for years and managed our citizen outreach offices across the state, running campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags, stop the overuse of antibiotics, and go 100% renewable energy. Jenn lives in Los Angeles, where she enjoys spending time at the beach and visiting the many amazing restaurants in her city.

Alexandra Schoettler

Summer Intern, CALPIRG

Alexandra Schoettler is a rising junior at Yale University, studying Political Science and Philosophy, and is a summer intern with CALPIRG.