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.

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.

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.

Stick by the dates to prevent barfing

What does a veterinary/public health student do when his mom is in town from South America? Takes her, his wife, sister and sister’s fiancé to Olive Garden, because “when you are here, your are family."

Maybe throw in a little Bed, Bath and Beyond (it’s across the parking lot).

When it was time to put our leftovers in boxes, not only did the server bring the boxes to our table to do the transfer – which avoids the risk of cross-contamination in the Olive Garden kitchen – they also wrote the date on it (right, exactly as shown). However, multi-state chains can do better when it comes to food safety.

Powell et al. developed this label (left) years ago. It lists the temperature at which the box should be stored, reheated, and guidance on when to discard. I may know these things, but maybe not everyone does because, as Steven Seagal said in Under Siege 2, “assumption is the mother of all f**k ups.”

The last thing I want is a barfing mom, or barfing pregnant wife, or barfing sister or barfing sister’s fiancé. One barfing dog is enough.

Assessing management perspectives of a safe food-handling label for casual dining take-out food ?01.oct.09?

Food Protection Trends, Vol 29, No 10, pages 620-625

?Brae V. Surgeoner, Tanya MacLaurin, Douglas A. Powell?

Abstract?:  Faced with the threat of food safety litigation in a highly competitive industry, foodservice establishments must take proactive steps to avoid foodborne illness. Consumer demand for convenience food, coupled with evidence that consumers do not always engage in proper food-safety practices, means that take-out food from casual dining restaurant establishments can lead to food safety concerns. A prescriptive safe food-handling label was designed through a Delphi-type exercise. A purposive sample of 10 foodservice managers was then used to evaluate the use of the label on take-out products. Semi-structured in-depth interviews focused on the level of concern for food safety, the value of labelling take-out products, perceived effectiveness of the provided label, and barriers to implementing a label system. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed, and the data was interpreted using content analysis to identify and develop overall themes and sub-themes related to the areas of inquiry. It was found that labeling is viewed as a beneficial marketing tool by which restaurants can be differentiated from their competitors based on their proactive food safety stance.