Microsession: Food Waste, Date Labels and Consumption


Brad Rickard, associate professor at Cornell University

Brad Rickard, associate professor at Cornell University

Could changing date labels on products actually increase consumption of more healthful foods, such as fruits and vegetables, while also reducing food waste?

Brad Rickard, associate professor at Cornell University, said combining both food quality and food safety labels on the same package could benefit consumers and society. “I think having some harmonization is worthwhile. The more experiments I do, I’m convinced that the words on the package matter. I’m not convinced that it affects what we buy in the grocery store, but I think it affects what we do at home in the pantry, or when we open the fridge. There are some date-labeling strategies that have some implications for steering people toward eating foods that are better for us, including fruits and vegetables.”

Rickard said current labeling in the United States — from “sell by” to “use by” to “best by” — is largely unregulated, leading to potential confusion among consumers. He noted that labels focusing solely on food safety lead to more waste, relative to those that focus on food quality.

More than 30 percent of food is deemed food waste in the United States, totaling $162 billion. Rickard cautioned that trying to employ policy that completely eliminates food waste may not lead to more healthy consumption. “It is a great policy if you’re interested in food waste, but it’s not such as good policy if you are mindful that this change will have some disruptions somewhere else; in this case, in human health consequences,” Rickard said.

Rickard hinted that a better approach to focusing on zero waste would be to concentrate on labels. According to his research, consumers presented with food-quality labels instead of simply food safety labels took in fewer calories, leading to less waste and better food choices.

“If it is presented in a way that used the language ‘best by’ rather than other types of languages, you would see an increase in sales of fruits and vegetables,” said Rickard.