“Sell by,” “Use by,” “Display until” and “Best before” food labels intended to inform consumers about food quality and safety frequently come under fire for their lack of clarity and confusing terminology that contributes significantly to the colossal food waste problem — one that costs families up to $29 billion annually in the United States alone. However, little concrete action has been taken to address the problem. Now, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) — a network of 400 of the biggest consumer goods companies across 70 countries — along with Champions 12.3 has approved a Call to Action to standardize food date labels worldwide by 2020.
An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food worldwide is lost or wasted each year. The average UK household with children spends £700 a year on food that’s thrown away — in the United States, that figure is $1,500. Standardizing food date labels is a simple and effective way to reduce the amount of food discarded by households, helping them save money and reducing their environmental footprint. Food loss and waste is also a major contributor to climate change, emitting eight percent of annual greenhouse gases.
The Call to Action suggests retailers and food producers take three important steps to simplify date labels and reduce food waste by 2020:
- Only one label at a time
- Choice of two labels: one expiration date for perishable items (e.g. “Use by”) and one food quality indicator for non-perishable items (e.g. “Best if used by”). The exact wording will be tailored to regional context
- Consumer education to better understand what date labels mean
The CFG Board of Directors, as well as Tesco, Kellogg, Campbell, Walmart, Bimbo, Pick n Pay and Carrefour unanimously adopted the Call to Action. The announcement builds on national efforts to streamline date labels in the United States, United Kingdom and Japan.
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“Now, more than ever, is the time for business to play a leading role in tackling food waste. This is an issue that can only be truly tackled by collaboration across the value chain. Through our global membership, the CGF is committed to playing a leadership role. We believe simplified and consistent date labelling will help us get one step closer to meeting our resolution to halve food waste by 2025, while also helping reduce confusion for consumers,” said Peter Freedman, Managing Director of the Consumer Goods Forum.
In addition to the labels on products, the Call to Action recommends companies partner with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to educate consumers about how to interpret date labels. Many consumers don’t realize, for example, that many products are still safe to eat past the “Best if used by” date. Efforts such as in-store displays, web materials and public service announcements could play a critical role in shifting consumer consumption behaviors.
The Call to Action was made at a Champions 12.3 event at The Rockefeller Foundation during Climate Week NYC 2017 and the 72nd United Nations General Assembly. Champions 12.3 has also published the SDG Target 12.3 on Food Loss and Waste: 2017 Progress Report, which takes stock of global progress to date toward halving food waste and reducing food loss by 2030.
“The Sustainable Development Goals have given us a historic opportunity and we must rise to the challenge,” said Hans Hoogeyeen, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN Organization for Food and Agriculture. “Of all the SDGs, Target 12.3 is the only one to my knowledge that is being advocated by a coalition like Champions 12.3 with leaders from every sector mobilizing action to achieve success. We stand a great chance, but a lot of work remains.”
The report finds that 28 percent of the world’s population live in a country or region with a target to reduce food loss and waste and nearly 60 percent of the world’s largest food companies have set reduction targets. However, efforts to measure and report food loss, a key step in identifying hotspots and determining whether strategies are effective, have been lacking.
“It is good to see clear signs of momentum building behind the movement to tackle food loss and waste and the leadership being demonstrated by individual Champions and others,” said Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director of Food Loss and Waste at World Resources Institute. “However, 2030 is only 13 years away and more is needed. We now have a roadmap for how to cut in half the more than one billion tons of food that goes uneaten each year and it’s vital that governments and the private sector everywhere put it to use.”