Smell the glove: Americans don’t understand food date labels and surveys still suck

Note to journalists (if there are any left): Don’t reprint PR fluff like it’s news and don’t bury the lede.

“A good way to test your food is also a simple way: give it a sniff,” says Roni Neff, PhD. “If the date says ‘best by’ and it looks and smells okay, it’s probably okay to eat.”

Probably is not good enough, and smell is a lousy indicator of food safety.

A new survey examining U.S. consumer attitudes and behaviors related to food date labels found widespread confusion, leading to unnecessary discards, increased waste and food safety risks. The survey analysis was led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), which is based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This study calls attention to the issue that much food may be discarded unnecessarily based on food safety concerns, though relatively few food items are likely to become unsafe before becoming unpalatable. Clear and consistent date label information is designed to help consumers understand when they should and should not worry.

Among survey participants, the research found that 84 percent discarded food near the package date” occasionally” and 37 percent reported that they “always” or “usually” discard food near the package date. Notably, participants between the ages of 18 to 34 were particularly likely to rely on label dates to discard food. More than half of participants incorrectly thought that date labeling was federally regulated or reported being unsure. In addition, the study found that those perceiving labels as reflecting safety and those who thought labels were federally regulated were more willing to discard food.

New voluntary industry standards for date labeling were recently adopted. Under this system, “Best if used by” labels denote dates after which quality may decline but the products may still be consumed, while “Use by” labels are restricted to the relatively few foods where safety is a concern and the food should be discarded after the date. Previously, all labels reflected quality and there was no safety label.

Neff and colleagues found that among labels assessed, “Best if used by” was most frequently perceived as communicating quality, while “use by” was one of the top two perceived as communicating safety. But many had different interpretations.

Lead author, Roni Neff, PhD, who directs the Food System Sustainability Program with the CLF and is an assistant professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering said, “The voluntary standard is an important step forward. Given the diverse interpretations, our study underlines the need for a concerted effort to communicate the meanings of the new labels. We are doing further work to understand how best to message about the terms.”

How best to message about the terms? Maybe use language properly.

Using an online survey tool, Neff and colleagues from Harvard University and the National Consumers League assessed the frequency of discards based on date labels by food type, interpretation of label language and knowledge of whether date labels are regulated by the federal government. The survey was conducted with a national sample of 1,029 adults ages 18 to 65 and older in April of 2016. Recognizing that labels are perceived differently on different foods, the questions covered nine food types including bagged spinach, deli meats and canned foods.

When consumers perceived a date label as an indication of food safety, they were more likely to discard the food by the provided date. In addition, participants were more likely to discard perishable foods based on labels than nonperishables.

But dates can be a lousy indicator: I’ve got deli meat in the fridge with a use by label about 2 weeks from now, yet once that package is opened, the stuff is good for 2-4 days. Publix gets it right.

Smell, like color, is a lousy indicator of food safety.

My kids always loved the cocoa: Italian grandma who sickened family learns expired cocoa is a no-no

An Italian grandmother is facing charges after two adults and three children fell ill from drinking her hot chocolate, which turned out to have expired in 1990.

cocoaThe 77-year-old Vicenza woman, her son, two grandchildren and a visiting friend of her grandchildren fell ill while at the grandmother’s home and all five people were hospitalized with vomiting and diarrhea.

Want to keep supermarket customers? Don’t sell moldy food

As traditional grocery stores continue to lose market share and wonks advise adding bars and a fishmonger, the New South Wales Food Authority (that’s in Australia) has a better tip: don’t sell out-of-date and moldy food.

ColesNewLogo9pinSeveral Coles, Woolworths and IGA stores make up the 1293 listings on the government’s online penalty register, which publishes the names of businesses that have breached food safety laws.

In the past year inspectors fined IGA supermarkets almost $10,000 for breaches spanning from Western Sydney to the Murray region.

The chain’s Nabiac store, in the Great Lakes area, was caught out selling potato salad, herb bread, yoghurt and pickled fish up to two weeks past their use by date, while an IGA store in Blacktown had “expired food exhibiting mould.’’

Inspectors found old smoked salmon at an IGA Liquor store in Wangi, in Lake Macquarie, while two outlets in Minchinbury were found to be selling expired products, including dips.

A company spokesman said responsibility for breaches was on the individual store owner. “However repeated breaches of food safety regulations will see the owner’s business de-bannered as an IGA store,’’ he said.

Woolworths was fined for trying to sell expired milk at its Caltex service stations in Blacktown and Kellyville Ridge, while its Bowral supermarket in Bowral was found to be selling food that was well past its use-by-date.

Coles.perth.raw.goats milkInspectors fined Woolworths’ Camden store for failing to maintain a “required standard of cleanliness.’’

Coles stores in Winmalee and Katoomba — in the Blue Mountains — copped penalties for failing to display “potentially hazardous food’’ under the correct temperature, control while the chain’s Gladesville store was listed for failing to take all necessary steps to prevent the likelihood of food being contaminated.

Despite the breaches, a Coles spokesman said staff: “work actively with regulators to ensure correct food handling and hygiene procedures are held to strict standards.”

Especially that raw goat’s milk.

Food safety concerns? Appetite grows for older groceries

Tammy and Troy Eversole paid 33 cents apiece for Jack Link beef jerky at the B&E Salvage grocery last Wednesday morning — a bargain compared to the 83-cent price tag for the same product at Wal-Mart.

jack.links.beef.jerkyThe Eversoles’ cheaper jerky was slightly out of date, stamped with “Best Before March 19,” but the couple said they don’t mind a snack that is slightly tougher on the tooth.

Like the Eversoles, a growing number of consumers are seeking out packaged food that is close to or just past expiration, or discarded by major retailers due to slightly damaged packaging. While many who buy such food are pressed for cash and looking for a deal, others are concerned that good food is being wasted.

As a result, more dated or dented stock is entering the mainstream, increasingly sold by secondhand retailers like B&E Salvage, or distributed by food banks.

“When I was in the service we would eat MREs that sat on the shelf for five, six or seven years,” Troy Eversole, an Army veteran, said as he bent each beef stick at B&E to make sure it was pliable enough for chewing. “This is good for anybody.”

Sustainability and safety; expired French food will suddenly be OK to eat

I really have no idea what sustainable means.

But, as explained by Rachel Feltman of Quartz, France has announced its plan to cut food waste, and one of it targets is sell-by dates found on france_500x213packages, which tend to be overly cautious and poorly communicated.

The move by Food and Agriculture Minister Guillaume Garot is part of in an effort to comply with a European Union initiative to halve food waste by 2025. France currently throws away an average of 20 kilograms of food each year per capita.

A key problem with sell-by dates is that consumers often don’t understand what they mean. A 2012 paper in Food Engineering & Ingredients explains what’s flawed about the EU’s policies for stamping food with ‘use by’ dates for safety purposes and ‘best before’ dates for quality:

There is survey evidence that many consumers do not understand the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates. This has sometimes been exacerbated by the use of other date labels, such as ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’, which have no status in law and are mainly used by retailers for stock control purposes.

This confusion, the paper says, could lead to consumers eating foods that have become unsafe. But it’s more likely to lead consumers to throw out Food-Labels-Organic-and-Naturalfood that’s still edible.

A good example of a commonly mislabeled food is yogurt: Because it has a low pH and usually uses pasteurized milk as a base, yogurt is extremely unlikely to cause foodborne disease for some time past its expiration date, even when it’s past peak quality in terms of texture and taste. (A bulging package and visible mold are signs of yogurt spoilage—but absent them it’s generally safe to eat and usually still tasty up to 10 days after its sell-by date.)

But a 2010 retail survey by the anti-food-waste non-profit Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) showed that 75% of yogurt in the EU carried a ‘use by’ date, which many consumers took to mean that the product would be unsafe to eat after only a week or two on the shelves. 

The French government is likely to tweak labeling regulations so that safety periods more accurately reflect a product’s real shelf-life. For example, ‘best before’ will be replaced with ‘preferably to be consumed before.’ After that, hopefully consumers can figure it out themselves.

Woolworths caught selling out of date food in Adelaide

This is not your parent’s Woolworths. In Australia and New Zealand, Woolworths, related in name only, is the largest retailer. The other big supermarket is Coles. They both suck at food safety, based on personal observation, public talks full of sanctimonious nonsense that anyone could see through, and crap food.

Recently, Woolworths was cited for selling foods that were well past their use-by dates. Two different incidents were noted of Asian lamb and rice pre-packaged woolworths_logomeals that were purchased almost two weeks after their use-by date. The store responsible for the sales is located in Adelaide.

According to food safety law, all foods must contain a sell-by or use-by date. Any items that could become dangerous to consume from bacteria or other contamination after a certain amount of time must contain a use-by date for consumer safety. All other foods should include a sell-by date. This date will only say the food may not be as good. It doesn’t indicate any danger or contamination.

In this instance, with Woolworths, the food had a distinct use-by date, indicating that consumption of the pre-packaged meals could result in danger to the consumer health. This means that the supermarket giant was in breach of food safety codes 1.2.5 set forth by the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Commission. According to Australian law, this breach of code can result in fines up to $250,000 total.

Woolworths used two different methods of defence while admitting their error: no one became ill from eating the two packages of expired foods and the problem was a result of staff error. Woolworths went on to explain that the staff of the store in question has since undergone intensive training on the proper way to handle any expired foods. The company admitted to the wrong doing but explained how they worked to handle the matter quickly.

The magistrate judge who handled the case stated to the press that the company would be the subject of seriously negative publicity and he felt this was a much better punishment than any fine he could charge. While Woolworths was not charged with any conviction, they were forced to pay the minimal fine to show that they committed wrongdoing.

Best-before labeling done right

There are lots of stories about best-before and use-by labels being altered at retail to sell shoddy goods to unsuspecting consumers.

But this is a note about labeling gone right.

Grocery shopping in Australia is not that much different from other countries in that prices can vary widely from store-to-store, week-to-week. Wherever I live, I soon develop a shopping ritual based on availability, price and quality.

In the Brisbane suburb of Annerley, I’ve discovered consistent bargains and quality produce at the Mother of all Fruits, which is affiliated with the Dutch-based retailer, Spar.

While stocking up on strawberries and asparagus (it is spring here), an employee with a black marker was reducing the price of bacon because the use-by date had been reached: as I picked up a couple of packages, she even told me, “Use by today.”

BLTs for lunch, buttermilk whole-wheat pancakes and bacon for dinner.