What Do Labels Have to Do With Food Waste?

Plenty, when retailers realize that expiration dates are just adding to the problem.

By Oded Omer || February 24, 2023 || Originally posted on progressivegrocer.com

Many people will see a product labeled “fat-free” and automatically assume it’s healthy. Others will flip the product over to check the nutritional label, expecting to lose weight if they count the calories. It’s not only about nutrition, though. People are misinformed about how best to manage food inventory in their kitchen, what a normal amount of waste is and when food has reached its maximum shelf-life.

With food, people can make an impactful decision three times a day. If the aim is to turn humans into eco-conscious consumers, then shoppers should have the option to measure how their shopping choices are affecting the planet, and retailers will need to work even harder to give customers more meaningful information to empower their choices, starting with labeling.

Expiration Dates Are Nonsensical

The quick fix for produce that has passed its sell-by date has been to toss it into the garbage. But when the average American family is dumping around $2,275 worth of food every year and 7% of food waste generated in the United States is linked to date marking, there’s no sugarcoating the extent of the problem. Expiration dates – “best before,” “sell-by,” and “best if used by” – have led consumers astray in their understanding of what edible food is. The labels imply that food has a clear-cut point of no return, when in fact these dates rarely mean that the item is unsafe. Manufacturers are simply saying that they can’t guarantee peak freshness past a specified date. That’s not to say that all foods should be stripped of these labels. Certain ready-to-eat food products like raw fish, deli meats and unpasteurized produce need that added precaution, as they can carry listeria.

While U.K. grocers are racing to remove best-before dates, the same can’t be said for supermarket chains in North America. With wildly varied state-to-state legislation and about 50 date labels already circulating in the United States, there will no doubt be pushback against invading shoppers’ current comfort zone. Many North American grocers are more concerned with avoiding customer complaints and are more liability-focused, aiming to please shoppers in their pursuit of food safety, rather than avoiding food waste. By mistakenly thinking they’re making a choice between profit and sustainability, these grocers would rather that people buy food while it’s at its peak, ensuring enjoyment and return shopping visits.

Even so, there are organizations trying to curb food waste and push for food recovery through labels. The Consumer Brands Association encourages its members like General Mills to adopt harmonious labels, while the Natural Resources Defense Council has been advocating for smart labels such as quick-response (QR) codes that allow shoppers to access information on storage instructions, freshness and sustainability from their smartphones.

Electronic Shelf Labels Make Sustainability Attractive

Food retailers struggle with food-demand unpredictability, leaving them with leftover stock. A well-stocked shelf driving sales is one thing, but an overabundance of produce that lands in the dumpster is another. To make matters worse, the first-in-first-out sellout process isn’t so clear-cut in reality. Customers still dig back for “freshness,” and to reduce waste, retailers turn to markdowns, but they often guess the next best price, costing them major losses at the end of the day.

Smart technologies are expanding opportunities for retailers to recover profits. With their real-time dynamic updated display of product information, electronic shelf labels (ESLs) are proving to be a vital store integration. People travel long distances to get the right price, a range of options and fast checkout – something that ESLs guarantee, especially when connected to dynamic pricing and artificial intelligence (AI) replenishment software.

Apart from freeing staff from manual price changes, digital tags enable automated discounts and make sustainable choices more attractive by incentivizing conscious consumption. They also encourage consumers not to buy too much of an ingredient that will be used in the short term. Retailers that synchronize their on- and offline information and offer integrated food-planning, shopping and recipe apps can further educate people on how to reuse leftover or spoiled food.

Climate Facts on Labels Should Share the Truth

Manufacturers are only required to list a product’s main ingredients by percentage, but transitioning to a sustainable food system requires brutal honesty, from farm to fork. Clear environmental labeling transparency could encourage consumers to actively defend food security.

Developments in emerging data-driven tech have brought us environmental scoring systems that can be made visible on the front of products so consumers can compare and make informed decisions based on a product’s environmental burden – whether that be carbon emissions, water usage or biodiversity loss. If retailers were to step in and promote greener brands and products, food producers would also be incentivized to keep up their sustainable production practices.

Climate-friendly eating is still nascent in the United States, but as a new generation of climatarians emerges, these strategies could also be applied in prepared food sections and in-store restaurants by adding high climate impact labels next to meals with red meat and low climate impact labels on chicken, fish and vegetarian options. The fact is, however, that method-specific eco-labels can confuse consumers, so grocers will have to find ways to clearly communicate the carbon cost of what we’re eating. For instance, this could be done by sharing a product’s lifecycle, having a standard grading system and using a benchmark for consumers to put the item’s footprint into perspective.

Label Warming

What the struggle against food waste needs is behavioral change – something that’s notoriously hard to achieve. Labels may just be a smart entry point to such change, however. Retailers, manufacturers, policymakers and producers will also need to help change consumers’ learned habits through public-health campaigns. Most importantly, people must realize that erring on the side of caution and dumping produce also contributes to wasteful spending. Otherwise, perceptions about distributing expired food will remain abysmal, even though we have the resources to feed the 9% of people experiencing food insecurity.

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