“When you look at a box of cereal and it’s past its use by date, who cares,” says, a food safety expert in the USF College of Public Health. “If you haven’t opened that product it’s good for another couple of years.”
An estimated 15% of US households are food insecure despite the fact that nearly 40% of foods in the US are wasted. A recent report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council highlighted the considerable loss of food due to confusion over date labels.
National news coverage of the report led consumer reporter Chris Chmuru, Tampa Fox 13 News, to contact food safety expert Jill Roberts, PhD for consumer advice on interpreting food labels.
The labeling systems were originally created due to consumer demand for dates on food items with longer shelf lives. They have never been regulated and this has led to a profusion of terms including “use by”, “best before”, “sell by”, “enjoy by” and others which are essentially quality labels related to the item’s freshness.
Contrary to popular belief, these dates are not determined by either food safety or nutrition concerns, with the notable exception of infant foods. The result is massive food waste at the manufacturer, retail, and home levels, and obstruction of food recovery and redistribution efforts. A regulated system which differentiates quality-based and safety-based labeling in the US could potentially result in considerable economic and environmental impact and feed America’s food insecure.
Dr. Roberts is an assistant professor in the College of Public Health, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. The department offers several concentrations that lead to MPH, MSPH, and PhD degrees, and recently launched an online MPH in health, safety, and environment.