Latest research: food label confusion leads to food waste

Research to be published in the September 2020 issue of Food Control confirms that consumers are wasting food due to confusion over food product dating. An online survey of 1042 U.S. adults evaluated consumers’ use and knowledge of food label dates, and consumers’ habits related to disposing of food that would likely still be safe for consumption.

The age and gender of the individuals surveyed closely resembled the make-up in the U.S. population: 46% men and 54% women were surveyed, with ages falling in the groups 18-29 (25%), 30-44 (23%), 45-60 (33%) and over 60 (18%). The only way in which the individuals surveyed did not mimic the U.S. population was in income category; study participants were much more likely to report earnings of $50,000 per year or higher.

Study participants were asked to correctly respond to food product dating terms:

  • Best by/use by” – indicates when the food is it’s freshest/peak quality (not a safety date)
  • Sell by” – indicates the last day the product should be sold (not a safety date)
  • Expiration date” – indicates the food should not be consumed after the date (may be a safety date)

What were the study results?

  • Across all categories, the majority of study participants (82%) reported ‘smelling‘ and ‘looking‘ at a food product as a way to determine if the product was edible.
  • The primary reason that food was disposed of in preparation was due to burning or otherwise ‘ruining‘ the food (64%).
  • Most study participants (58%) would throw away a food that had not ‘gone bad’ but still ‘wasn’t worth the risk.’
  • Study participants indicated they would throw away a food that had past the ‘best by’ date (30%), the ‘use by’ date (50%) or the ‘sell by’ date (21%).
  • Consumers who knew the correct definition of food product dates were less likely to waste potentially edible food and were more likely to know that only an ‘expiration date’ indicated a safety date on some products.

What can we learn? Supporting consumers in understanding food product dating can have a positive impact on reducing food waste without negatively impacting food safety while, at the same time, helping consumers to stretch their food dollars.

See recent updates on this topic and links to resources such as the FoodKeeper App. Stay well and food-safe, Barb

Ref. Food Control