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How improving sell-by dates can reduce food waste

The consumer confusion over food expiration dates leads to millions of pounds of food being thrown away each year. But there's a better way.

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    Spices sit on a table in Hingham, Massachusetts. Some argue that spices have an expiration date, others that they last years.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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A new short film produced in partnership by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and Racing Horse Productions spotlights how the confusion around expiration date labels contributes to food waste in America.

"EXPIRED? Food Waste in America" looks at the specific example of milk in Montana, where the state law requires the sell-by date on all milk to be no later than twelve days after pasteurization. "After the sell-by date passes, the milk may not be sold or donated. As a result of the law, thousands of gallons of milk have been thrown away, and milk prices in the state have risen," writes Harvard Law Today.

However, as with many so-called expired foods, the milk in Montana is safe to drink beyond those first twelve days. And, Montana isn't the only state with laws that promote food safety uncertainty and food waste.

According to FLPC Director Emily Broad Lieb, "date label confusion harms consumers and food companies, and it wastes massive amounts of food, which harms the planet. The U.S. wastes 160 billion pounds of food, or nearly 40 percent of food produced in this country, annually. Twenty-five percent of our freshwater is used to grow food we throw away. What gets tossed out goes into landfills, releasing hazardous methane into an already stressed atmosphere. Making date labels clear and uniform offers a relatively low-cost way to eliminate confusion and save consumers money, and it would make a big dent in the unnecessary waste of wholesome food."

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic hopes that this film raises awareness about the consequences of confusing date labeling and how a uniform labeling system could impact food waste and consumer food safety.

Click here for more information and to view the film.

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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