Expiration dates and food waste
Food waste is a huge problem in America and is partially caused by confusion surrounding expiration dates. Photo by Katie Lee.

Expiration dates and food waste

Every year, Americans waste billions of pounds of food. A 2016 report by “The Guardian” states that roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste also takes up the majority of space in all American landfills. But why do we have all of this uneaten food?

A huge part of the problem is that food is cheaper in the United States than anywhere else in the world due to subsidies on major crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans. There is also a cultural dynamic to the massive food waste problem that is unique to the American psyche.

Fruits, vegetables and other produce will naturally bruise, oxidize, brown or wilt as they travel from farm to supermarket and supermarket to home. The majority of American consumers would rather throw away slightly browned produce than eat it. For a family of four, the average value of discarded produce is nearly $1,600 every year. The American need for perfection is expensive.

Doug Rauch, a former president of Trader Joe’s, admitted that “[g]rocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes.” This is under the lofty presumption that the produce even reaches stores. Insanely large quantities of produce are grown and then left to rot in the fields, fed to farm animals, or hauled off directly to landfills.

Another huge part of the problem is that there is no single regulation for expiration dates. The majority of Americans do not understand exactly what these labels mean. States have a dizzying variety of expiration date laws that are not based on science or public policy. So between the lack of label uniformity and the gap in understanding on what these labels mean, customers are understandably confused about when food has become too old to eat. This confusion can lead to tons of wasted food.

A federal standard is much needed if America ever wants to rectify its food waste problem. Expiration date labels need to be simplified to two clearly defined options: a quality date and a safety label. The quality date will tell the customer up to when the food will taste its best. The safety label will let the customer know when the food is no longer safe to eat without getting sick.

The amount of food the United States wastes every year has detrimental effects on the health of the environment. All of the food that sits in this country’s landfills releases hazardous methane into the already damaged atmosphere. Creating a uniform expiration date system is a key part to alleviating the problem of food waste and help the environment.

A key part in combating the problem is spreading awareness of the scale of the food wasted each year in the United States. Consumers eating that bruised apple instead of tossing it into the garbage could make all the difference.