Fixing Expiration Dates Won’t Solve Food Waste

We toss food because we’re bad planners, not just because we meticulously adhere to incorrect expiration dates.

Open fridge full of fresh fruits and vegetable.

Anna Omelchenko/Thinkstock

Until recently, a salmon fillet was essentially taking up residence in my freezer. It had been there for over six months, and it had even moved apartments with me (saved from the trash by my roommate’s insistence that it was still fine to eat).

I like salmon. That’s why I bought it. But it seemed this particular piece was destined for a landfill, not for my stomach. That would not have been terribly uncommon for me or for the average American: We toss an estimated one-fourth of the food and drink that we buy without consuming it. That’s because we adhere too strictly to expiration dates, a common argument goes. We read sell-by and best-by dates meant mostly for grocery stores, as if they are meant for us, and toss all kinds of food unnecessarily.

In an attempt to curb this nasty habit, Congress is currently discussing the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, which would standardize the notoriously misleading stamps. The idea is that clearer labels would better signal when a food is just a little past its prime versus when it actually could make you sick.

This is a good move. Congress should pass and enact this law. Date confusion is a problem: Most of us at least occasionally toss still-good food because of a label, according to experts. But doing so is not going to keep us from wasting food. That’s because date confusion accounts for just one-fifth of food waste at the consumer level, according to a report completed in the U.K. cited by the bill and in many reports.

So what accounts for the rest of our food waste? The real problem is that is we are picky eaters who are bad at planning and loathe to admit it. Plus, we are terrible at recognizing our own environmentally destructive habits. The top reason for tossing food according to diaries filled out by participants in that U.K. survey was not “it was past the expiration date.” It was: “It looked/smelt off.” This is the inevitable result of overstocking and underutilizing what you’ve bought, and it won’t be solved by better date labeling.

I have a bunch of excuses for the salmon. It’s hard to remember to take it out of the freezer to thaw in advance of cooking. Assembling a box of mac and cheese is so easy and so satisfying. The fish looked weirdly unappetizing in its vacuum-sealed plastic wrap, covered in frost, and I’m instinctively grossed out by anything edible that I’ve owned for longer than it takes to binge a season on Netflix. Before I even looked at the label on the salmon, I went straight to the internet to see if eating fish that had lived in my freezer for a few months would kill me. (If you think that’s a dumb concern, you’re right: Experts I spoke to talked about a need to increase food education at all levels.)

My (our) food waste problem starts at the store. Apparently, we think we are our best selves in the grocery store. “We live out our aspirations in our shopping carts,” says Dana Gunders, a Natural Resources Defense Council researcher, and author of both the report which inspired the date label bill, and a book full of planning strategies and recipes for consumers that exemplify just how multifaceted the problem is.*

We go to the grocery store believing in our ability to actually cook and consume the food we’re buying. We tend to judge ourselves as OK at planning hypothetical meals and making lists, according to a survey of just over 1,000 people co-authored by Roni Neff, a program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Then we get home, and those aspirations go out the window.

We might be bad cooks, so we don’t do it. We might favor grabbing pizza instead of using up what we have in the fridge—Gunders points to the uptick in spending on dining out, which last year overtook national spending on groceries. Ultimately, what we bought at the grocery store just becomes an option.

When we do cook, we’re not very efficient. Over 60 percent of the respondents in Neff’s survey said that at least sometimes they make too much food. And then, at least some of the time, about half of us chuck leftovers because no one wants to eat them. This is particularly true during the holidays, suggests the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noting that we annually toss more than twice as much turkey as chicken. It’s not that our confusion around expiration dates dips further—too much hard cider?—but more likely we overbuy even more than we are planning to overeat.

Compounding our laziness problem is the problem that we are also not that self-aware of what we’re doing, since we’re also inclined to think that we’re not really contributing to the problem. Seventy-three percent of respondents to Neff’s survey estimated that they discard less food than the average American, while only 3 percent reported that they discarded more.

What we should know is that wasting food is affecting us. It’s costly: A family of four throws out $1,365 to $2,275 in food every year, according to one estimate Gunders cites in a report titled “Wasted.” That food accounts for 20 percent of the municipal waste sent to landfills every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, where bacteria converts it into methane, a greenhouse gas. Plus, consider the resources—water, land, labor, transportation—it took to get that food into our hands in the first place.

So how should we resolve the problem? Neff told me she advises fixing this disconnect by keeping your own food-trash diary for a week. She and her co-authors recommend that education campaigns personalize the issue by emphasizing the impact cutting food waste will have on household budgets. Gunders recommends being realistic at the grocery store, and then using your freezer to store anything you aren’t able to use right away. Look up ways to use food that’s shifted in taste or texture—like sour milk pancakes. When you do have to throw food out, the EPA encourages you to compost as much as possible.

*Correction, July 5, 2016: A previous version of this article misidentified the Natural Resource Defense Council as the National Resources Defense Council. (Return.)