Trash talk: Reducing food waste

Why is reducing wasted food important? Reducing wasted food has social, environmental and economic implications. Wasted food is a social problem. In 2013, 14.3 percent of US households were food insecure at some time during the year. That is 48 million Americans, of which 16 million are children, living in food insecure households. Wholesome, nutritious food should feed people, not landfills.

What is food security? The USDA says, “Food security means access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Therefore, food insecurity is when people do not have enough food for an active, healthy life. Imagine that! People are still suffering from food insecurity in this country.

Wasted food is an environmental problem. Food is the largest stream of materials in US trash. Once wasted food reaches landfills, it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.
The US is the leader in food waste and it accounts for 40 percent of all food wasted. This number has doubled since the 1970s.

Wasted food is an economic issue. It is estimated that at the retail and consumer levels in the US, food loss and waste totals $161 billion dollars. A US family of four ends up throwing away an average of $1,600 annually in food. A 1987 study found that people over age 65 wasted half as much food as other age groups. We can all improve our food waste. How?

Check dates for quality: The dates on a food package help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help you to choose a product at its best quality. Wear your glasses and carry a small magnifying glass so you can read dates on packages. Choose the package with the date that is farthest away.

Food product labels may show two types of product dating. “Open Dating” is a calendar date applied to a food product by the manufacturer. The calendar date provides you with information on the estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality. It helps the store determine how long to display the product for sale. “Closed Dating” is a code that consists of a series of letters and/or numbers applied by manufacturers to identify the date and time of production.

Does federal law require package dating? No. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law. All others are a voluntary practice.

Understand date labels on food packages: Misinterpretation of dates on labels is the number one reason for packaged food waste. More than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because food labels are misinterpreted as indicators of food safety. New date labels have been proposed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute in an effort to reduce confusion and food waste.

The three labels seem to offer the most confusion:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a food safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date, except for when used on infant formula as described below.

These label dates are soon to be updated and replaced. Adoption is expected by July 2018. The “Best If Used By” date will appear on most foods. This is a quality date, meaning the food may not taste as expected after this date but will be safe to consume. It is not an expiration date.

The “Use By” date will be reserved for highly perishable foods and appear on products where safety is a concern over time. These foods should be disposed of after that date. *FDA does not require food firms to place “use by” or “best if used by” dates on food products, with the exception of infant formula. This labeling is voluntary.

Plan and save: Plan your weekly menu and make a grocery list. How many times have you returned home from the grocery store only to find you bought food you already have on hand? Keep a running list of foods you run out of and buy only what you need. This also helps you stay within your budget.

Be organized: Foods are less likely to go bad when you use the older items first. Keep your pantry and refrigerator clean and organized, so you can see what needs to be eaten first.

Re-purpose and donate: Give leftovers a makeover, when you reuse them in recipes. Add broccoli stems to a salad or blend overripe fruit into a low-fat smoothie. Freeze extra food. Many shelters, foodbanks and faith-based organizations will accept non-perishable food donations to feed others who need a meal. Waste not, want not.

                                       Prepared by Drusilla Banks, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness;                                   University of Illinois Extension in Bourbonnais, IL.


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