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Clearing the Fog on Expiration Dates

Use By, Sell By, Best Before... if you find food expiration dates confusing, you're not alone. Currently in the US, there are at least 10 different expiration date formats in use. Confusion about when foods really become unsafe to eat sends tons of edible food to landfills each year. ReFED estimates that nearly 400.000 tons of food - worth $1.8 billion - could be saved each year nationwide by standardizing date labels.

Change is Coming
Most expiration dates are simply a best guess by the manufacturer about when the product's flavor and appearance will decline. But change is coming. The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the largest grocery industry trade groups, recently adopted a new system. It will make a clear distinction between food quality and food safety. Manufacturers will be able to choose from two dating schemes for their packaging. “BEST If Used By will describe product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is still safe to consume. “USE By” will apply to products that are highly perishable or raise food safety concerns over time. Though voluntary, these new standards should still make a dent in our food waste. The standardized date labels will launch in July 2018.

Wasted Food: Why We Care
Wasting food is harmful on a number of different levels. Most critically, food should not be wasted while people go hungry. At a time when one in five children in America is living in a food-insecure household, every effort should be made to stop throwing food away.

Food waste in landfills also creates methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. As noted in an earlier Green Scene blog, organic matter makes up about 40% of the material going to landfills nationwide.

Tossing away good food also has indirect impacts on our environment. When you take into account food production and transportation, discarding food wastes water and energy as well as using excess chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Finally, all the food we waste hits us in the wallet. In 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report showing that Americans throw away $218 billion worth of food each year. For a four person family, that means wasted food costs the household between $1,300 and $2,300 each year. That's a lot of bread!

New Laws Take Aim at Food Waste

EPA food recovery hierarchy
EPA food recovery hierarchy

The EPA's food recovery hierarchy (right) designates feeding hungry people, i.e., food donation, as the best use for unwanted food. Based on the EPA's hierarchy, the State of California also designates food rescue as the highest and best use of excess perishable food.

To reduce food waste, elected officials are starting to address food expiration date confusion. Several U.S. Senators have proposed legislation to harmonize expiration dates. Meanwhile, an Ohio congresswoman has introduced the Food Donation Act of 2017 in the House of Representatives (H.R. 952), which would make donating food less cumbersome and more consistent across states.

The State of California is ahead of the curve on legislating to reduce food waste. AB 1826, which went into effect last year, mandates organic waste recycling for businesses that generate a large amount of food and green waste. The City of Thousand Oaks is working with affected businesses and our local waste hauler, Waste Management, to expand the City's organic waste recycling program.

These pending changes to standardize expiration dates and streamline food donation will divert more food from the landfill. Our goal should be to feed the hungry, not the landfill.

If you are a Thousand Oaks business owner and want more information about organics recycling service, or to request a consultation, contact Waste Management Business Services at (805) 955-4346.

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