Larry Crowe/AP

Are Food Labels Causing Food Waste?

June 10, 2009 07:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
U.K. officials are considering getting rid of certain food labels that confuse consumers and can lead to excessive waste.

Should the US Follow the UK’s Lead?

According to the BBC, U.K. ministers think certain food guidelines, such as “sell-by and best-before dates” could be contributing to unnecessary waste, but businesses beg to differ. The news comes amidst “a new UK-wide strategy on packaging and recycling” that aims to reprogram peoples’ attitudes toward the way food is bought, sold and consumed.

U.K. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told the BBC, "Too many of us are putting things in the bin simply because we are not sure, confused by the label or just playing safe.”

Food waste constitutes billions of dollars per year, but excess packaging is perhaps just as crucial an issue. The U.K. will introduce “uniform standards” on packaging that will encourage people to report violations to authorities and hopefully push businesses to “increase their use of recyclable materials,” the BBC reported.
Sky News spoke with Benn about the issue of food waste, and the resulting “harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.” Benn told the news source, “It's not just about recycling more—and we are making progress there—it's about re-thinking the way we use resources in the first place.”

Key to improving the situation is “clearer communication” of what labels actually mean, which would give consumers a better sense of when food should be tossed and when it can still be safely eaten, according to Richard Swannell, the Director of Retail and Organics at Waste and Resources Action Plan. "This could help us all make better use of the food we buy and save money,” he told Sky News.

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Background: Food labels

An overabundance of unclear labels seems to be the root of the problem, and it goes beyond expiration dates.

According to a May article published in Packaging Digest, consumers “are suffering from an ‘information overload’ brought about by too many different nutritional labelling schemes.” U.K. research revealed that “one single system of nutritional labelling” would help shoppers most.
As for expiration labels and the like, Phil Lempert, a food editor for the ‘Today’ show, explains terms such as “sell by” and “best if used by.” Lempert also encourages shoppers to “be sure to inspect the package” to ensure there are “no bulging cans or jar tops, no leaky meat trays, no tears on the frozen package box.”

In other words, there are ways for consumers to take food safety matters into their own hands, and to take responsibility for their own health by using common sense.

Related Topic: Persistent food waste

Last May, reports surfaced of the harmful effects of food waste on the environment. In Britain, where 3.6 tons of edibles are needlessly trashed annually, most of the food ends up in landfills where it biodegrades and releases biogas. This harmful biogas is comprised of 60 percent methane and 40 percent carbon dioxide; methane is 20 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.

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