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Can Walmart's food labels make a dent in America's $29bn food waste problem?

The retail giant will now require its suppliers to use a new date label designed to ease safety worries and prevent food from being tossed away too early

If you’ve ever paused before tossing a can of food in the trash after seeing the date on the label, you’re not alone.

Whether it’s because of habit, cultural norms or a genuine fear of getting sick, most consumers err on the safe side and avoid foods that have passed the date stamped on their labels. As a result, an enormous amount of the food that goes uneaten around the world gets wasted at home. Confusion over labels leads Americans to throw away an estimated $29bn worth of still edible food each year.

Walmart, one of the nation’s largest food retailers, has been working on a fix. It requires suppliers of its private label Great Value line of products to use the same, standardized date label for its non-perishable foods: “Best if used by”.

The company, which asked its suppliers to start making the switch last year, is giving them until next month to comply. Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart, says when the company last checked, roughly 70% of suppliers had complied. While the company couldn’t say exactly how many products will change in total, it said the number is in the thousands.

Walmart’s initiative to use clearer date labels dates back to 2013, when The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report called The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America. The two groups referred to date labels as “a key cause of the high and rising rates of waste in the United States”.

“That really helped get our attention,” says Yiannas. Yiannas points out that the world’s population is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050. “There’s a growing realization that we’re not going to be able to produce our way to feeding 9 billion people, so we have to reduce food waste,” he says.

Decoding the labels

Confusion over date labels – such as “best by”, “use by” and “sell by” – can often muddy the water for consumers looking to make sure they’re not eating expired or unsafe food. It can also lead many consumers to throw a great deal of food away prematurely.

Although one survey from the Food Marketing Institute found that as many as 91% of consumers had at some point thrown away food because they perceived it to be a safety risk, most date labels aren’t designed to indicate safety. They’re merely supposed to tell consumers when the producer believes the products will reach their peak quality.

A lack of federal regulation – and an array of different state-level policies – adds to the confusing sea of options. US food companies use dozens of different labels to describe what happens to their products over time.

All this matters because the economic and environmental costs of food waste are shockingly high. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest global greenhouse gas emitter in the world. An estimated 25% of America’s freshwater use goes into the producing food that doesn’t get eaten. The direct economic consequences of global food waste adds up to $750bn annually.

How Walmart came up with a plan

Yiannis initiated research within Walmart about eliminating the label confusion. He worked with the Institute of Food Technologists, Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and others to publish a white paper in 2014. They came to many of the same conclusions as the Harvard law group and the Natural Resources Defense Council: date labels cause unnecessary waste.

Next, Walmart surveyed its private label suppliers and found that they were using as many as 47 different kinds of date labels. Then it surveyed Walmart customers by showing them a list of the most commonly-used date labels and asked: if they had to choose a label that indicated a change in quality but not food safety, which one would it be?

“There was a clear winner: ‘best if used by’,” says Yiannas. Respondents said the new language conveys that “it doesn’t mean it’s bad after that day”.

With this data in mind, Walmart went to its merchants and announced a national standard for its Great Value foods – which include everything from peanut butter and canned tuna to pasta sauce and boxed mashed potatoes. The company expects its effort to have a broader impact because most of its suppliers also sell products with their own labels outside of Walmart. The label change doesn’t cost manufacturers much because it mostly involves reprogramming their label printers, Yiannis says.

Creating new labels alone isn’t enough. The company launched a 30-second video at its checkout counters explaining the new labels and offering tips for reducing food waste, such as freezing leftovers. In one month, Yiannas says it was seen 10 million times.

Walmart received help from the Harvard food law clinic in crafting and rolling out its campaign. Emily Broad Leib, director of the law clinic, says the data from the company’s survey of its customers, which led to the “best if used by” label, is compelling. “Then we could tell people, ‘if you see that label there’s no safety risk’. But if you see an ‘expired on’ label there is a safety risk.”

Broad Leib has considered confusing date labels as one of the “biggest components of household food waste” since she was approached by former Trader Joe CEO Doug Rauch four years ago to help him maneuver a series of legal hurdles to start Daily Table, a retail company that specialized in excess or overstocked from grocery stores, food suppliers, manufacturers, restaurants and growers sold at a discounted price.

She would like the government to set clear policies, such as a list of prepared foods – think unpasteurized dairy and deli meats – from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture that do need the “expired on” label. She is already working with federal lawmakers to address the lack of standards for date labeling: a bill introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) in May aims to create the same changes that are taking place at Walmart.

Will it work?

Will standardizing date labels really save a substantial quantity of food? Yiannis says Walmart will likely do another customer survey to find out. He points to a study done in the UK and says, “about 21% of food wasted at home is due to confusion over date labels. Any dent we can make on this figure is a good thing”.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, says Walmart’s effort is a solid first step. “If you were going to pick one chain to undertake this kind of initiative, it would be Walmart – given their scale,” Bloom says. But he stresses that education is as important as the labels themselves.

“People see a date on that package and they don’t want to eat anything after that date [regardless of the text next to it],” Bloom says. “A better solution would be making it so consumers don’t even see a date label, and are less able to be confused.”

He also thinks Walmart should have gone one step further to include the text “manufacturer’s suggestion only” on labels. As Bloom sees it, the mere presence of date labels on food implies a purely linear relationship between time and food safety that can be misleading.

“Getting more people to trust their senses before they turn to the date on the package will lead to a lot less food wasted at home,” he says.

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