In a nation where 40% of our food goes uneaten, we need to find ways to reduce the amount of this waste and its impacts on the environment and the economy. The resulting confusion is generating enormous food waste. Often, people are throwing away perfectly edible food because they misinterpret the date label. The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America. Published: Author/Owner: Natural Resources Defense Council.
But the emergency passed, and the can, with its unassuming blue-on-white outline font, remains on my shelf seven years later. Its continued presence raises a dilemma in the form of a clearly legible stamp: Can canned peas go bad? How would I know if they had? Such confusion, common in many a cupboard, drives an enormous amount of food waste: About 40 percent of food in the US gets trashed, often due to belief that a gone-by date on a package means the food is not safe.
Many countries have simplified food packaging to carry a use-by date for when a product might actually go bad or a best-before date reflecting when it might start to become less palatable. US manufacturing groups recently announced voluntary guidelines to adopt such nomenclature. But this may not help much to reduce food waste.
The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America
Driven by advances in informatics, sensor technologies and chemical analysis, such improvements could lead to more accurate date stamps or one day even render them moot. Activation happens when the probes come into contact with the pathogen or with certain molecules it secretes.
The fluorescence could then be scanned by a hand-held device or a smartphone to detect the bacterium without opening the package. Bad food basics Food can go bad in various ways, says Tiny van Boekel, a food technologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Most obvious is microbial spoilage — the growth of bacteria, viruses or mold.
Other contaminations are truly dangerous: In the past, scientists determined the risk of microbial growth experimentally.
Dating Game: How Confusing Date Labels Lead to Food Waste
But microbes grow predictably under known conditions — salt levels, humidity, acidity and, especially, temperature — and so over the past two or three decades researchers have amassed enormous amounts of data that food manufacturers can draw on to estimate shelf lives. They can then do trials to check that the predictions hold up. How can one tell when a food has gone bad?
It depends on the food. This problem is especially acute in the seafood industry since products come in a variety of states: Shelf life also varies depending on the fish species, along with other factors like storage temperature and handling.
ThisFish visited five retail grocery chains and randomly sampled date labeling on fresh, frozen and smoked product.
Some frozen product had no dates, but did have lot codes which are likely traceable to a production date. Of all the dates related to a seafood product, the harvest date is the most important since the shelf life of most fish is based on the day it was harvested. Unfortunately, many fish boats stay out to sea for multiple days storing fish on ice.
On the Great Lakes, fish harvesters may leave their gillnets in the water for days, reducing the quality of their catch. Fish caught in the net may be dead for a day or more before being pulled aboard a boat and iced. Another challenge is food literacy: Retailers typically purchase seafood from distributors who, in turn, purchase it from processors or directly from fish harvesters.
The dating game: When food goes bad
What does "best before" and "packaged on" actually mean? Some grocery clerks and restaurants servers may even unwittingly mislead customers because they lack adequate knowledge about the seafood supply chain. The fish delivered today is likely from the same batch that was delivered the day before.
Halibut, for example, can maintain its shelf life for 17 to 21 days if properly stored. A distributor in Toronto, for example, might receive one large delivery of Pacific halibut from a processor in BC and distribute it to retailers and restaurants for several days. The fish delivered on Monday is just as fresh as the fish delivered on Thursday, since it all came from the same boat landing on the same day and was shipped to the distributor together. One frustrated urban distributor told ThisFish how some chefs demand daily delivery, believing they are getting fresher fish.
In fact, these chefs are likely just forcing trucks to make unnecessary deliveries, adding to product costs, urban air pollution and carbon emissions.
How did we get to this state of affairs?