The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) wants something done about confusing date labels that contribute to food waste.

GAO recommends the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Serice (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work with stakeholders outside the federal government to reduce consumer confusion.

Almost one-third of the U.S. food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels, according to USDA. A new GAO report says date labeling confusion contributes to food waste.

When consumers cannot be sure about when food has expired, they often follow the adage” “When in doubt, throw it out.” GAO says both the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are researching the issue.

“USDA and FDA have coordinated on some initiatives focused on date labels on packaged foods, ” GAO reports. “For example, agency officials said they were working together to develop information for food banks, food donors, and recipients of donated food on how to interpret date labels, so food past the date on the label–but otherwise wholesome–is not wasted.

GAO focuses on the many introductory phrases used on the date labels, including these:

  • Sell by
  • Use by
  • Best by
  • Better if used by
  • Display until
  • Best when used by
  • Fresh until
  • Enjoy by
  • Best before
  • Use or freeze by
  • Best if used by
  • Expires on
  • Better if used before

USDA and FDA have both produced consumer education materials to help cut the confusion caused by date labels, including their work with state, local, and tribal jurisdictions.  USDA and FDA “could better assure that approaches they take to address consumer understanding of date labels are effective in helping reduce consumer confusion, GAO said.

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food loss and waste is complicated but involves these elements:

  • Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted.
  • Food losses and waste amount to roughly $ 680 billion in industrialized countries and $ 310 billion in developing countries.
  • Industrialized and developing countries dissipate roughly the same quantities of food — respectively 670 and 630 million tons.
  • Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food.
  • Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30 percent for cereals, 40-50 percent for root crops, fruits, and vegetables, 20 percent for oilseeds, meat and dairy plus 35 percent for fish.
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).
  • The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tons in 2009/2010).
  • Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kilogram a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kilograms a year.

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