How Food Labeling Leads to Food Waste

For the first time in their lives, many people in well-off countries are being careful not to waste food. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to find and buy all the food many of us normally take for granted. But food waste is a problem even when food seems plentiful, partly because not everyone in the world has as much food available to them and partly because wasting food is a huge cause of environmental damage. The United Nations has pointed out that if food waste were a country, it would be behind only the United States and China as the biggest producer of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

In well-off countries like the United States and Australia, most food waste—61 percent—happens after people buy food. In contrast, in Sub-Saharan Africa, people end up throwing out only 5 percent of the food they buy.

One of the reasons people in well-off countries waste so much food is because of the “best by” or “use by” labels on food packages. Many people don’t realize that almost all such labels are not based on any particular scientific evidence. But people throw out large amounts of perfectly good food because date labels make them worry that the food is spoiled and unsafe to use.

To prevent food waste, a new paper argues that different types of researchers need to come together to make food labeling less confusing and arbitrary. The paper argues that food safety research is needed, along with better regulation and education.

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