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Date Labels and their Impact on Food Waste in the United States

02 Nov 2015

US researchers undertake survey on the impact of labelling on consumer behaviour (food waste)

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently set an ambitious national goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. This move was set against the back drop of a steady but raging debate on US food policies at both the state and national levels.

The state of Maine’s Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree recently tabled a bill in Congress to combat food waste, but unlike previous food waste bills, this one targeted the problem of inappropriate date labelling and its impact on consumer waste. In a news release Pingree pointed to inconsistent food labelling regulations and the subsequent impact on negative consumer behaviour. “A lot of people mistakenly think there is some sort of government standard for ‘best by’ dates and that you have to throw out food once the date is passed,” she shared.  “The truth is it’s the manufacturer who comes up with those dates, and much of the time the food is perfectly safe to eat well after the date has passed.”

In the United States, much like many parts of the world, there are limited state and federal regulations on the use of date labels such as ‘best before and use by’’. However, in recent years, researchers have been eager to unearth whether or not these date labels have a significant influence on consumer action, especially waste. Will date labels like ‘best before’ impact the willingness of consumers to spend a particular price on a tub of yogurt? Will a ‘sell by’ date affect the likelihood that families waste a box of breakfast cereal? These are some of the issues that Professor Norbert Wilson of the Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology faculty at the Auburn University and Bradley J. Rickard, Associate Professor Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University are steadfastly exploring.  The two teamed up with graduate students Rachel Saputo and Shuay-Tsyr Ho from Cornel University to carry out an experimental auction using qualitative analysis of people’s choices given diverse date labels. Their experiment looks into how date labels affect consumers’ willingness to pay and consume (or waste). In the auction, Wilson and his team asked subjects to share the percentage of the product that they expect to consume, which ranged from 0 to 100 percent. They then subtracted that expected consumption rate from 100 percent to find the rate of waste.

Participants were non-student adults in Ithaca, NY and represented a wide array of socio-economic backgrounds. They were asked how much they were willing to pay for food items in different settings and were given large and small sizes of Yogurt, Salad Greens and Breakfast cereals (Cheerio’s) of varying date labels. Throughout a bidding process, subjects were asked how much they would be willing to consume given the date labelling of the product (in some cases the product would have been 3 weeks, 1 week and 1 day away from the date indicated on the label). Subjects then advised Wilson’s team of how much of the product they were likely to use given their previous consumption experience, the label and the posted expiration date among other factors.

Date labels such as ‘sell by’, ‘fresh by’, ‘use by’ and ‘best buy’ were used for the survey.

‘Use by’ results in more waste, ‘Sell by’ in comparatively less

Researchers found that participants threw away more value if the date label said ‘use by’ and were less likely to waste if the product said ‘sell by’.  Wilson and his team suggested that a ‘sell by’ date label may be less likely to produce food waste as it gives no instructions to the consumer, and only requires action from the retailer.

He pointed to the ambiguity of the ‘sell by’ date and the fact that it did not indicate urgency or directly prescribe an action to the consumer. Wilson believes that if the date label is clearer or more certain, people will likely respond more directly and this could potentially lead to greater waste. He also pointed out that ‘fresh by’ and ‘best by’ labels also may suggest to consumers that there are quality concerns and food safety hazards associated with consuming the food item after the date on the label. This may then lead to a greater likelihood that the product will be wasted.

Though the date labels used are markedly different, many may be applied to the same products in the marketplace. The result, Wilson argued, was a high level confusion among consumers.

‘Date labels really do matter, when you look across the marketplace you can see that date labels are not consistently applied. In the United States there are no federal regulations, only in the case of infant formula. At the state level, not every state regulates labels and often the same products are not regulated the same way. There is little to no consistency in the process.’

Wilson noted that there was no substantial research in this area. But, however, there was a high level of excitement and a growing concern about the issue and the potential to mitigate it. ‘Before we change policies we need a clearer economic understanding on what drives waste. Our research suggests that waste will occur which will be affected by a date label.’

Food waste: The role of date labels, package size, and product category is currently a Cornell University working paper http://publications.dyson.cornell.edu/research/researchpdf/wp/2015/Cornell-Dyson-wp1507.pdf.

For more questions about the study feel free to contact Norbert Wilson at wilsonl@auburn.edu or Bradley J. Rickard at bjr83@cornell.edu .

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