France today announced its plan to cut food waste, and one of its targets is sell-by dates found on packages, which tend to be overly cautious and poorly communicated.
The move by food industry minister Guillaume Garot is part of an effort to comply with a European Union initiative to halve food waste by 2025. France currently throws away an average of 20 kilograms of food each year per capita.
A key problem with sell-by dates is that consumers often don’t understand what they mean. A 2012 paper in Food Engineering & Ingredients explains what’s flawed about the EU’s policies for stamping food with “use by” dates for safety purposes and “best before” dates for quality:
There is survey evidence that many consumers do not understand the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates. This has sometimes been exacerbated by the use of other date labels, such as ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’, which have no status in law and are mainly used by retailers for stock control purposes.
This confusion, the paper says, could lead to consumers eating foods that have become unsafe. But it’s more likely to lead consumers to throw out food that’s still edible.
A good example of a commonly mislabeled food is yogurt: Because it has a low pH and usually uses pasteurized milk as a base, yogurt is extremely unlikely to cause foodborne disease for some time past its expiration date, even when it’s past peak quality in terms of texture and taste. (A bulging package and visible mold are signs of yogurt spoilage—but absent them it’s generally safe to eat and usually still tasty up to 10 days after its sell-by date.)
But a 2010 retail survey by the anti-food-waste non-profit Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) showed that 75% of yogurt in the EU carried a “use by” date, which many consumers took to mean that the product would be unsafe to eat after only a week or two on the shelves.
A Swedish study published in 2011 in The Journal of Cleaner Production found that, during a week-long period of measuring food waste, participants attributed 11.5% of their collective 100 kilograms of waste to tossing out products that were past their “best before” date. A good portion of the products were probably quite edible, according to the study, given that 1) the safety of different foods after their expiration dates varies greatly and 2) there was a separate category for food thrown away after visible spoilage.
The French government is likely to tweak labeling regulations so that safety periods more accurately reflect a product’s real shelf-life (link in French). For example, “best before” will be replaced with “preferably to be consumed before.” After that, hopefully consumers can figure it out themselves.
In the coming months, Garot also hopes to press companies into offering smaller serving sizes in stores at a lower cost (to discourage customers from buying in bulk when they don’t need to). He also wants to make it easier for stores and restaurants to give away food they can no longer sell via government-run collection programs.