Survey reveals wide-spread confusion over US food labels
Thirty one percent of food may be wasted at the retail and consumer levels.
A new survey examining US consumer attitudes and behaviours related to food date labels found widespread confusion, leading to unnecessary discards, increased waste and food safety risks. The survey analysis was led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The study, published in the journal Waste Management, estimates that 31 percent of food may be wasted at the retail and consumer levels.
Among survey participants, the research found that 84 percent discarded food near the package date “at least occasionally” and 37 percent reported that they “always” or “usually” discard food near the package date. Notably, participants between the ages of 18 to 34 were particularly likely to rely on label dates to discard food. More than half of participants incorrectly thought that date labelling was federally regulated or reported being unsure. In addition, the study found that those perceiving labels as reflecting safety and those who thought labels were federally regulated were more willing to discard food.
Using an online survey tool, lead author Roni Neff, PhD, and colleagues from Harvard University and the National Consumers League assessed the frequency of discards based on date labels by food type, interpretation of label language and knowledge of whether date labels are regulated by the federal government. The survey was conducted with a national sample of 1,029 adults ages 18 to 65 and older in April of 2016. Recognising that labels are perceived differently on different foods, the questions covered nine food types including bagged spinach, deli meats and canned foods.
When consumers perceived a date label as an indication of food safety, they were more likely to discard the food by the provided date. In addition, participants were more likely to discard perishable foods based on labels than non-perishables.
Raw chicken was most frequently discarded based on labels, with 69 percent of participants reporting they “always” or “most of the time” discard by the listed date. When it came to prepared foods, 62 percent reported discards by the date label and 61 percent reported discards of deli meats. Soft cheeses were near the bottom of the list with only 49 percent reporting discards by the date label, followed by 47 percent reporting discards of canned goods and breakfast cereals.
Among foods included in the survey, prepared foods, deli meats and soft cheeses are particularly at risk of contamination with listeria which can proliferate in refrigerated conditions. Despite concerns of listeria, soft cheeses were rarely discarded by the labelled date. On the other hand, raw chicken was frequently discarded even though it will be cooked prior to consuming and is not considered as big of a risk. Unopened canned goods and breakfast cereal pose the least concern based on time since packaging, but were still discarded by just under half of respondents.
“Foodborne illness is misery-or worse,” says Roni Neff, who is director of the Food System Sustainability Program with the CLF. “As date labelling becomes standardised, this research underlines the need for a strong communications campaign and highlights a particular need for education among those ages 18 to 34.”