Food Waste Is A Major Problem. Confusing Date Labels Are Making It Worse.

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Rummaging through your refrigerator, you come across a jar of mayonnaise labeled “BEST IF USED BY 06/10/19.” If it’s mid-July, are you risking illness by slathering it on your sandwich and eating it?

It’s hard to say.

Massachusetts and New Jersey are considering measures to clear up the confusion, following a California law that went into effect earlier this year. Several other states also are looking at labeling bills, as anti-food waste groups advocate for clearer signs to indicate when food is okay to eat, even if it’s not the freshest.

A bill that would establish federal standards for the labels, first introduced in 2016, has gone nowhere in Congress. Meanwhile, 43 states have their own rules, but they vary widely. Most limit labeling requirements to certain items, such as milk or shellfish. Some states prohibit the sale of past-date foods, and about half restrict donations of them. And the seven states without any laws leave it up to manufacturers.

The result: confusion for retailers and consumers, who throw out tons of food that is perfectly safe to eat.

Manufacturers largely include the labels to let retailers know when they should pull the product from their shelves, said Katy Franklin, operations manager at ReFED, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that focuses on reducing food waste.

“You might think this product isn’t safe after the date, but what it really means is that this food is not at peak quality after this date,” Franklin said.

More than a third of the food in the United States goes to waste — about 400 pounds a year per American. Food is the largest category of waste in landfills, where it generates methane that contributes to global warming. Discarding past-date food is a huge cost for retailers.

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