Food Labels–Confusion, Waste, and Clarification

Sell By, Use By, Bye Bye?
Note: update video from NBC about the labeling issue, click here.

In an effort to simplify food purchases and reduce food waste, grocery manufacturers and retailers launched an industry-wide effort to adopt standard wording on packaging about the quality and safety of products. As reported by Sara Wyant in AgriPulse, the new system proposes just two standard phrases–rather than the ten different date labels now on packages. As Emily Broad Leib–director of Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic–says, “We waste about 40% of the food we produce. The single most cost-effective solution is standardizing and clarifying date labels.”

CAST has published several papers about food labels including Process Labeling of Food: Consumer Behavior, the Agricultural Sector, and Policy Recommendations. 
Years ago we didn’t have as many label choices or food “statistics” to worry about, and some look smugly back to maintain that food waste was not such a problem. The following segment from an earlier CAST blog considers the food waste situation in days gone by.    
Why We Wasted Less in the “Good Old Days” or Did We?
So what was different about those days before McFastFood, processed gourmet items, and mega supermarkets? Maybe it’s because when we sat at the family table we had slow food, farm produce, and whatever the little grocery store in town had on special. Maybe we just didn’t have the opportunities to waste as much. A few points to consider:
Gee Wally–I never waste any food.
#1  We usually had similar items at each meal—meat, potatoes, bread, and a vegetable. When referring to his assembly line cars, Henry Ford supposedly said that customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black. After Dad had one of our steers in the feedlot butchered, we could have any meat type we wanted as long as it had once “mooed.”

#2  The small-town grocers also had limited choices back then. The cereal aisle was not a kaleidoscope of colors and cartoon characters. “Do you want Cheerios or Wheaties?” Trix, Coco Puffs, and Count Chocula had yet to invade our rural landscapes.

#3  Fruits and veggies were seasonal. I didn’t know what a papaya was until my wife and I went to California on our honeymoon. When our strawberry patch was ready, we had red-stained fingers for a month, and if you went to the work of digging carrots in the garden, you ate even the “ugly” ones. When we sat down in late summer, we could have any vegetable we wanted as long as it was sweet corn on the cob.

#4  There were no “sell by” or “use by” dates on items. Mom kept our fridge free of those fuzzy, green things that sometimes lurk in the back, and most folks just used the sniff test and a bit of common sense. At school, you could tell the milk was off if it came chunky style in the carton. Some of the kids figured the food was “World War II surplus,” but we were too busy yelling and acting like the Three Stooges to worry about food freshness.

#5  Most families had a “clean your plate” policy. Some had the strict “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding” edict, while others used pathos with the line about starving kids in the world. One old farmer we heard of used to lick his plate clean, turn it over, and say that it was fine to leave there until the next meal.

#6  “Whole food” meant that most items were fully used. For example, the hog butchers claimed that “the only part of the pig not processed was the squeal.” If there were leftovers, we saved them to eat later (garden beans went noodle-like by the second day), or we had built-in disposal systems—hogs, dogs, and cats. As Dad says, “Our chickens would eat anything from orange peels to sawdust.”

I’m not convinced we were that much better at food use when I was a grade school kid in the late 50s. But things were certainly easier then. We didn’t have so many choices; we knew where our food came from and what it was; and we had less waste at the end of each meal. Even those peas my brothers and I flicked at each other when the folks weren’t looking served their purpose.
by dan gogerty  (Beaver Cleaver pic from lessonbucket.jpg) 


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