The use of food-date labels, such as “use by” and “best if used by,” is causing consumer confusion and led to the unnecessary disposal of safe-to-eat or donated food, according to the Nov. 2023 Consumer Food Insights (CFI) Report from Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability.
The nationwide survey assessed 1,200 consumers for their food spending, consumer satisfaction, values, support for agricultural and food policies and trust in information sources.
Lead author of the report, Joseph Balagtas, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue and director of the Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability, emphasized that over half of consumers associate “best if used by” and “use by” dates with food safety, while more than 30 percent link these labels to food quality. Balagtas also highlighted the lack of an official standard for food date labeling in the U.S., contributing to the mix of responses regarding their meaning.
Balagtas proposed a potential solution, stating, “One potential fix to misinformation is for the government to set standards for food date labels to help inform consumers what is and is not safe to eat to help reduce food waste in the U.S. The recently proposed Food Date Labeling Act is an attempt to achieve that goal.”
The Food Date Labeling Act reintroduced in Congress by Rep. Chellie Pingree, Rep. Dan Newhouse and Sen. Richard Blumentha aims to tackle the issue of food waste by standardizing and clarifying food date labels. The legislation seeks to streamline the language used on these labels, providing consumers with clearer distinctions between safety and quality considerations.
Currently, with the exception of baby formula, food date labels lack federal regulation and standardization, contributing to the disposal of over half a million tons of still-edible food annually. The proposed act aims to alleviate confusion, potentially saving consumers money and making a substantial impact on reducing the substantial amount of food wasted in the United States, which accounts for more than one-third of annual food production.
The November survey also delved into consumer perceptions of foodborne illness risks, revealing a division into risk-averse, risk-neutral, and risk-loving attitudes. The report noted that consumers perceive a higher risk of contracting a foodborne illness when eating at a restaurant compared to home-cooked meals, aligning with actual data on the incidence of foodborne illness.
The study also found a notable gap in consumer perceptions of the risk associated with different food items, with raw meats selected as high-risk items despite data indicating comparable risks from fresh produce. Additionally, the report highlighted a slight decrease in food insecurity rates to 12.6 percent for the fifth consecutive month.
Elijah Bryant, a survey research analyst at the center and co-author of the report, pointed out correlations between age, food-risk attitudes, and food insecurity rates. Consumers classified as risk-loving reported engaging in risky food behaviors, such as not washing fruits and vegetables, consuming rare or undercooked meat, and eating raw dough or batter.
About Consumer Food Insights Report: Consumer Food Insights (CFI) is a monthly survey of more than 1,200 Americans from across the country. Since Jan. 2022, the Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability (CFDAS) at Purdue University has used this survey to track trends and changes in consumer food demand and food sustainability behaviors. Visit purdue.ag/CFDAS for more information.
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