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Currently showing: Food security > Food industry

04 Nov 13 13:18

In the run up to the "Partnering for Food Security" event at Swiss Re's Centre for Global Dialogue in December, here's my take on how we can feed 9 billion people by 2050. It's a comment to a previous post that I felt deserved more attention. It's about the high rate of edible food that's wasted due to something as simple as a misunderstood date label.

Many times I've come across food that has gone beyond or is close to its best before date which I've either thrown away or hesitated before buying it. In fact the date label is usually the single most important criteria I look for before dropping a product into my shopping basket at the grocery store. The date is of prime concern especially for dairy, meat and processed foods. And sometimes I wonder what happens to all the yogurt, the chips and the chocolate that go unsold because they have run past their expiry dates.

Well, it turns out that much it is simply thrown away. A recent report co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic estimates that the US wastes 160 billion pounds of food annually which works out to $1'560 for a family of four per annum. It means 25% of freshwater in the US is used to produce wasted food and we could save up to 100 million acres of cropland if developed countries reduced food waste by 30%. Wasted food also accounts for over 21% of landfill input. So why is a date label so important?

The report highlights the need for clarity in dates printed by manufacturers and a change in existing practices. We see many dates like "use by", "best before", "sell by" etc depending on local regulations in our countries but a quick Google check on these practices and it's apparent that we don't fully understand the significance of these dates. Most of the time we assume that once a product has gone beyond its "best before" date, it's unsafe to consume. The reality however is that yogurt remains safe beyond that date provided it's stored in the right conditions and the "best before" date is a mere indication of the date before the quality/freshness of the product begins to dip but not necessarily it's safety.

The date tries to serve two functions i.e. to assure microbiological safety of a product and the food quality. And that's the dilemma manufacturers face. On one hand manufacturers want to protect the product's brand reputation and those with a zero tolerance to any change in taste would prefer to advance the date as much as possible reducing the shelf life. However more often than not, there's no scientific method that's used to determine a "best before" date as that would cost time and money, instead the dates are usually based on consumer experience and guesstimates. At the same time, manufacturers or retailers don't want to risk being sued for selling unsafe food either.

The point is that a major contributor of food wastage today is the confusing date label. In the UK up to 20% of wasted food is due to misrepresented date labels. Just imagine what an impact could a more consistent well established standard in date labeling have on our economy, environment and society? In developing countries (like India home 1/3rd of the world's hungry where up to 50% of food produced is wasted), the emphasis should be more on improving storage facilities and in developed countries, greater awareness that a potato chip beyond four months of its manufacture is safe to eat.

The Dating Game: Harvard FLPC and NRDC Publish Comprehensive Report on Food Expiration Dates | Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

Category: Food security: Food industry, Food waste


Bernd Wilke - 4 Nov 2013, 6:15 p.m.

We will take it up on our event in Rüschlikon

But there is also a legal catch to it. If producers become too generous with the sell by/use by date they become liable in most countries under product liability laws - because they put unsafe products on the market. So this needs a broader discussion.

Karthik Sampath - 5 Nov 2013, 7:01 p.m.

Thanks Bernd and a good point you raised. The authors of the report state that historically, these dates were never meant to convey safety of the product except for certain perishable foods like milk/meat and infant foods which are heavily regulated. Infact they put the onus on the consumer to determine if the food is safe to eat by doing a few basic safety checks. So I feel this gives tremendous scope to cut down on food waste.!EDA38B85-358F-49CF-9B70-538B875E62A9


Alicia Montoya - 12 Nov 2013, 5:39 a.m.

Am I the only one who still smells and tastes food to decide whether it's still edible? Funny, 50 years ago there were no labels but much more common sense and household know-how. The more I live, the more I value that know-how, lovingly transmitted to my by my grandmother.

Frankly, I ignore sell by labels and will eat cereal a year passed its sell by date, for instance. I do see its value with certain foods (especially in this crazy pre-packaged, pre-cooked, bachelor serving food industry today). And maybe that's where the trouble starts. Just what exactly is going into our food? And why?

I wish food safety associations focused on what's actually in the food we're being sold, and on banning many of the awful chemicals in it! Here's a post on fish farms that'll stop you from ever eating farmed tuna, salmon or pangasius again.

We recently discussed food safety with Zurich Insurance expert Matthias Scheurer during last week's CRO Assembly. Why don't you reach out to him and link to your post?

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