by : Maybe you know the routine. Every so often, I go through my refrigerator, check labels on the items, and throw out anything that’s a month, or a week, or maybe a few days past the date on the label…

Awaken

I might stop to sniff, but for my whole adult life, I’ve figured that the problem was obvious — my jam or almond milk or package of shredded Italian cheese blend had “expired” — and the fix was simple: Into the garbage it goes.

This habit is so ingrained that when I think about eating food that’s gone past its date, I get a little queasy. I’ve only had food poisoning once or twice in my life, always from restaurants, but the idea is still there in my head: past the date, food will make me sick. You’ll probably never catch me dumpster-diving.

I know, on some intellectual level, that throwing away food is probably wrong. The statistics are damning. Forty percent of food produced in America heads to the landfill or is otherwise wasted. That adds up. Every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275, according to a landmark 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s a huge economic loss for food growers and retailers, who often have to ditch weirdly shaped produce or overstocked food that didn’t sell.

Environmentally it’s bad, too. The study found that 25 percent of fresh water in the US goes toward producing food that goes uneaten, and 21 percent of input to our landfills is food, which represents a per-capita increase of 50 percent since 1974. Right now, landfills are piled high with wasted food, most of which was perfectly fine to eat — and some of which still is.

On top of this, I know that in the same country that throws away so much food, about 42 million people could be living with food insecurity and hunger. Yet state-level regulations often make it difficult to donate past-date food to food banks and other services.

A billboard with a picture of a bagged loaf of bread reads, “Every American wastes 290 pounds of food a year. Cook it, Store it, Share it. Savethefood.com.” The tag on the bread reads, “Best if used.”
A billboard in Minnesota, telling us what we probably already know.
 Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

America has a food waste problem. But I’ve rarely been clear on how that translates to how I actually treat the food in my refrigerator. Because what can you do, right? When the date says it’s done, it’s done, right?

Apparently, very wrong. Researchers have found that “expiration” dates — which rarely correspond to food actually expiring or spoiling — are mostly well-intentioned, but haphazard and confusing. Put another way, they’re not expiration dates at all. And the broader public’s misunderstanding about them is a major contributor in every single one of the factors I named above: wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, and food insecurity.

In fact, she said, it’s in direct contrast to what most food cultures practice around the world. “The whole idea that mold and bacteria are to be avoided at all costs is not only antithetical to good cooking, but it’s literally not practiced” in most cultures. Salami and cheese and pickles and sauerkraut and all kinds of food come from the natural process of aging — “in most cuisines of the world, there’s not as great a distinction between new food and old food; they’re just ingredients that you’d use differently,” she said. Those traditions certainly have been retained in regions where Americans still make kimchi and half-sours and farm cheese. But we’ve absorbed over time the idea that those natural processes are bad and will make us sick. Instead, we rely on companies to tell us what food is good for us and when to get rid of it.

Adler says part of the problem may also lie with our burgeoning “food as status performance” culture, in which particular foods trend on social media, or food media coaxes us to keep buying new ingredients to make something we saw in a picture or on TikTok. “That doesn’t do a great service for anybody trying to cook what they have,” she said. “If they don’t have the ingredients for the viral thing, then whatever they do have is just going to sit there, while they go get the other ingredients.”

Our shopping culture is also at fault

The problem is bigger than individual consumers. Some states bar grocery stores from donating or selling out-of-date foods to food banks and other services designed to help those living with food insecurity. The thinking is reasonable, even altruistic: Why would we give sub-par food to the “poor”? If I wouldn’t eat “expired” food, why would I give it to others? Distributors fear legal threats if someone eats past-dated food and becomes ill (something that has rarely happened, but it’s still a looming threat).

That’s exacerbated by the way Americans shop. Think about it: How often do you see a shelf or bin or freezer in a grocery store that isn’t fully stocked to the brim? Supermarkets stock more food than they can sell, and that’s on purpose. Broad Leib told me that it’s common practice for supermarkets to plan for “shrink” — food they expect to be wasted. Shoppers in the US look askance at a shelf that isn’t fully stocked, or at a few potatoes left in the bin. “On the consumer side, you can understand,” she said. “You want to go to a store and have them have everything you want. And if you went in and they didn’t have what you want, then you’d go somewhere else.” We may not even realize it, but we’ve trained ourselves to see full crates of beets and shelves of salad dressing as a sign that the store is good, and therefore the food in it is good. Abundance indicates quality.

A grocery store aisle with fully stocked shelves of cereal and other packaged goods.
Most American grocery stores aim to have full shelves, as consumers expect, but that can contribute to food waste, too.
 Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images

But that mindset naturally, even inevitably, leads to waste. In many places, if you can’t sell all your milk by the sell-by date, you have to dump it. Consumers don’t want to buy a box of Cheez-Its that only has a week left on it. Beef that “expires” in two days is not going to fly off the shelves. And if you can’t sell all your carrots, some of those carrots are going to start getting a little bendy. And many grocery stores will only sell produce that’s up to a certain aesthetic standard — no weird-looking apples or sweet potatoes from outer space, everything the same shape and size. Furthermore, if a manufacturer changes the label on their cookie packages, all the old packages will probably just be discarded to maintain uniformity.

“Most of the decisions that are made about most of the foods that we eat are made for reasons that have nothing to do with the food’s deliciousness or its healthiness or anything intrinsic to the food,” Adler said. “The leaves on vegetables wilt before the stalk on the vegetable, so it’s much easier for grocery stores to cut off the leaves at some point in processing. Otherwise you have to be sprinkling and trimming them all the time.” So the perfectly edible leaves of some vegetables may get lost in the process as well, while they could have been used to feed people.

Some businesses have cropped up to try to fix this larger-scale problem, like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods. They form relationships with producers to rescue aesthetically “ugly” food — or at least, food we’ve been trained to think is ugly or too small or too large — and sell it to customers. They also buy food that’s approaching its label date and resell it to customers, hoping to cut down on food waste and change the way people eat. “It’s all about breaking down misconceptions,” Imperfect Foods’ associate creative director, Reilly Brock, told me by phone. “Food is not Cinderella. It’s not going to turn back into a pumpkin by midnight if it reaches the date on the label.”

But across the country, the standard practice for your average American consumer still stands. Make a big trip to the grocery store to buy your food from the glossy displays. When food expires, throw it out. Meanwhile, farmers are plowing ugly produce back into the ground or letting it rot in the field, and stores are chucking food that’s near or past its date into the garbage because there’s nowhere else they can send it.

Can we change this?

Why doesn’t the government just fix the problem?

The follow-up data to the 2013 Harvard study found that standardizing the date labeling system across the country — rather than leaving it to more local governments to address in a scattershot fashion — could be incredibly beneficial to the economy and to consumers. Enacting standardized legislation, it estimates, could prove to be an economic value of about $1.8 billion to the US. What’s more, an estimated 398,000 tons of food waste would be diverted to actually feed people, instead of sitting in landfills.

But fixing it has proven harder. Since the 1970s, Congress has periodically introduced legislation to modernize and standardize the system, in various forms. But, as Broad Leib told me, it can be an uphill battle. “The last administration and Congress were fairly deregulatory,” she pointed out. In the years since the 2013 study, many states have passed laws to try to standardize their own dates, even if they don’t align with other states. While Broad Leib and her colleagues argue that businesses (particularly national ones) would benefit from trying to meet one federal standard rather than different standards in different states, the philosophical differences can still be tough to surmount. “When you’re in a government that’s deregulatory, even for a good regulation, they say, ‘Let industry handle it. They have a voluntary standard, and we don’t need to step in.’”

Furthermore, Congress just moves slowly. “They don’t have a lot of stand-alone small bills,” she said. “So the best hope that this has of getting enacted is hitching itself to a moving train. A lot of our work has been in saying, ‘Here are other bills that are moving along’” — like the US Farm Bill, or the Child Nutrition Act — “and here’s why date labeling fits in with them.”

Quite a bit has happened in the years since Broad Leib and her colleagues first published their study. Seeing the problem, two major associations (the Consumer Brands Association and the Food Marketing Institute) put together a working group to design a standard date label that would work for both businesses and consumers. “They came up with a ‘best if used by’ label for a quality date and ‘use by’ for a safety date,” Broad Leib told me. “And they got a bunch of their members to sign on to voluntarily shift to using those dates.” In other words, if a food won’t decrease in safety but might decrease in quality, the manufacturer would use the “best if used by” label; if it might become unsafe to eat, they’d use the “use by” label. That system corresponds roughly to a standard used in many other countries.

This could make the work easier for the federal government to act, she says. “If Congress wanted to act, or the FDA or USDA wanted to act, it would be very easy to say, ‘Here’s what the standard label should be. We have some data on what works for consumers. And we know that these work for industry.” But otherwise, she calls the new label standard more of a “halfway solution,” since the label still will only appear on some products.

It’s more than laws. The culture needs to change.

And until there’s a better solution, the best thing we can do is try to educate ourselves and change the way we shop for food.

Broad Leib says there would be three big components to improving the system as it stands. First, the adoption of standard labels that indicate either a freshness date or a risk date would help.

But the second part is just as important: We need a public health program to educate people about what’s safe to eat. The UK has done a series of campaigns toward that end, with the slogan “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste,” in which it partnered with industry to help people understand when to keep their food and when to toss it.

Customers choose tangerines, limes, corn, and other produce.
A free fruit and vegetable distribution effort in the Watts neighborhood of south Los Angeles, organized by the Watts Labor Action Committee and Food Forward, aims to collect gleaned and discarded food and distribute it to those who need it.
 Frederic J. Brown/AFP

The third component would be changing the way we allow food to be donated and distributed through food banks and other means. That requires a shift in how we think. If everyone is eating food past its “freshness” date — understanding that the food is perfectly safe but may not be at its absolute peak condition — then there will be less hesitancy about giving that food away, and less fear about the possibility of facing legal repercussions. That could have a huge impact on hunger and food insecurity in the US. “If everyone acknowledges that those foods are fine to eat, and everyone’s eating them, it’s not like, ‘Past-dated food is only for people who can’t afford food,’” Broad Leib said. “No, we should all be eating that.”

But that means we each need to rethink how we interact with food. We need to start trusting our senses to tell us if food is edible. “Use your sense organs,” Adler said. “We have them so that we can figure out whether things in the world are going to kill us, so we can make sure we’re not going to poison ourselves and die — and it’s even worth doing when you suspect something is bad, because feeling your body’s response is so reassuring.”

We need to ask for more clear labels, advocate for better legislation, and talk to one another about what labels really mean. And we need to move closer to food again, thinking of it less as a packaged consumer product and more as something natural that nourishes us as humans.

And in my case, that means I’m going to start sniffing what’s in my refrigerator before I chuck it — and maybe even turning it into lunch.

Source: VOX