National Consumers League

New survey reveals how labeling contributes to food waste


May 11, 2016

Americans mistakenly believe feds control date labeling on food; Advocates decry how confusion is contributing to global food waste epidemic

Industry, NGOs, government reps gathering today at Food Waste Summit in Washington to analyze food waste epidemic and search for solutions

Contacts: Najeema Holas-Huggins,, (617) 390-2624 and Carol McKay,, (724) 799-5392

Washington, DC— At a Food Waste Summit in Washington today hosted by Keystone Policy Center and the National Consumers League (NCL), researchers will release new data, which confirms widespread consumer confusion over food date labeling and how it likely contributes to food waste. The new national survey assessing consumer perceptions of date labels and reporting are a collaborative effort of NCL, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, and Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future.

Date_Labels_Survey_Infographic-01.pngAccording to the new survey, conducted in April, there is considerable uncertainty about the regulation of food labeling in the United States, with a third of adult Americans mistakenly believing the federal government regulates date labels. Only one percent of respondents responded correctly that only certain products are federally regulated; in fact, the only product for which date labels are regulated federally is infant formula. The reality is that all other foods are regulated at the state level or not at all, depending on the state. The results also identified how consumers interpret date labels—whether terms communicate food safety vs. quality—findings which advocates expect could be useful in supporting voluntary industry efforts to standardize date labels as well as potential federal legislation to standardize date label language.

“Each year, 40 percent of our food supply goes to waste, a tragedy given the number of Americans—nearly 50 million—who live in food-insecure households,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “And one of the reasons why we waste so much is that consumers misunderstand the many different dates and language printed on food products. Consumers too often interpret date labels to mean that the food is no longer safe to eat, when that food is often times still both healthy and of peak quality. The link between confusion over date labeling and food waste is clear."

KEY FINDINGS (full report)

Consumers take action based on dates.

More than one third of the population (37%) say they always or usually throw away food because it is close to or past the date that appears on the package. 84% of consumers throw out food based on date labels at least occasionally.

Younger consumers are the strictest.

Notably, younger consumers (age 18-34) were most likely to discard food based on the date label, while older consumers (65+) were the least likely to do so.

Safety vs. quality: misperceptions and uncertainty about what date labels mean.

The survey examined perceptions of six date labels: best by, best if used by, freshest by, expires on, use by, and sell by. Findings revealed a striking amount of diversity in interpretation of the meaning of these labels, suggesting a need for standard labeling and consumer education. However, “best if used by” was most commonly seen as an indicator of food quality (70%) and “expires on” was most commonly seen as an indicator of food safety (54%).

Misinformation about government role.

A third of consumers wrongly think that date labels are federally regulated (36%), and 26% were unsure. Only 1% said they are federally regulated only for specific foods, which is technically the correct answer; the only food for which date labels are regulated federally is infant formula.

Those who were more likely to think that labels are federally regulated included younger consumers (18-34), African Americans, Hispanics, households of three or more, and households with children.

“Many people throw away food once the date on the package has passed because they think the date is an indicator of safety, but in fact for most foods the date is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality,” said Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and a survey co-author. “With only a few exceptions, food will remain wholesome and safe to eat long past its expiration date. When consumers misinterpret indicators of quality and freshness for indicators of a food’s safety, this increases the amount of food that is unnecessarily discarded, leading to wasted food, hungry households, and a waste of resources nationally.”


About the survey

This survey was fielded online to a demographically representative sample of 1,029 adults from April 7-10, 2016. These questions were part of a CARAVAN® omnibus survey that is conducted twice a week by ORC International. The findings presented here are one piece of a larger analysis of consumer perceptions of date labels.

About The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) was established in 2010 to provide legal advice to nonprofits and government agencies seeking to increase access to healthy foods, support small-scale and sustainable farmers, and reduce waste of healthy, wholesome food, while educating law students about ways to use law and policy to impact the food system. For more information, visit, find us on Facebook, and follow us on twitter @HarvardFLPC.

About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit