Food waste and plastic packaging pose significant sustainability challenges for the food industry, but two new labeling initiatives in the US and abroad endeavor to change that.
“Best by” and “sell by” labels intended to inform consumers about food quality and safety have never been touted for their clarity. The terminology often confuses consumers, leading them to throw out food items prematurely.
In an effort to reduce food waste, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS) will be introducing a new regulation this year requiring brands to use the term “Best if Used By.”
A 2013 study co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic found that approximately $165 billion worth of food is wasted each year, simply because consumers do not fully understand the meaning of the dates that are printed on food packaging.
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“We’ve all been there. We’ve taken milk out of the refrigerator, ready to pour it onto our bowl of cereal, when we notice yesterday’s date appears on the milk jug. The milk gets poured down the drain, and there goes our breakfast,” said Jill Carte, category manager of Food Safety at DayMark Safety Systems, a manufacturer of grab-and-go food labelling systems and other labelling systems for the food service industry.
“Much of the problem stems from the old ‘best by’ and ‘sell by’ date-marking system. The study reports that 90 percent of consumers assume that a date printed on a food package represents the date that the item expires — which is not always the situation,” she added.
According to Carte, the ‘best by’ and ‘sell by’ date often represents the food item’s peak freshness — not its edibility.
The change in terminology is not only expected to help reduce food waste, but it could help consumers save big at the supermarket. Carte estimates that families could save approximately $1,000 annually, allowing food to be consumed, marketed or donated past the freshness date, which will also provide a boost for the food industry as a whole.
As for adjusting to the new regulations, Carte believes the process should prove to be straight forward for the food service industry.
“Restaurants, grocery stores and food manufacturing facilities have been using date labeling for years, so they already have an understanding of the concept. We expect to see many of these organizations beginning to use the new terminology in the next few months.”
Meanwhile, Swedish grocery chain ICA and the Dutch fruit and vegetable supplier Nature & More have teamed up to replace produce stickers with laser-printed labels. Though consumers and businesses don’t give the single-use, sticky labels much thought, they’re so ubiquitous that they produce a significant amount of waste when discarded.
The new pilot project, which currently is set to run until the end of March, sees stickers of organic avocados and sweet potatoes replaced by laser-printed labels. Dubbed “natural branding,” the technique uses a strong beam to reduce pigmentation on the skin of the produce, leaving behind an impression with the name, country of origin and PLU code. The mark is invisible once the skin is removed and the method has no impact on the product’s quality or shelf life.
“By using natural branding on all the organic avocados we would sell in one year, we will save 200 kilometers of plastic 30 centimeters wide. It’s small but I think it adds up,” says Peter Hagg, ICA business unit manager.
The laser technology also creates less than 1 percent of the carbon emissions needed to produce a sticker of similar size.
The concept of laser printing labels took off in 2013, when Laser Food, a Spanish company specializing in laser marking agro alimentary products, teamed up with researchers at the University of Valencia to develop a tool that could reliably and legibly mark fruits and vegetables without affecting their quality. The technology was previously used for aesthetic applications, but is now well-poised to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impacts of food labeling.
Business development manager of Laser Food, Stephane Merit, has said that with millions of stickers used on food produce around the world every day, the technology could make a “significant reduction in the amount of paper, ink, glue” being used as well the in the energy needed to produce and transport them.
“Up to now, no one has used this technique with the specific aim of cutting packaging. It was used for novelty — which is nice, but a gimmick at Easter or Christmas isn’t going to pay off,” said Michaël Wilde, sustainability and communications manager at Nature & More. “What we are saying is, by buying this product you’re saving plastic.”
ICA’s pilot program is already receiving positive reception, leading the supermarket chain to consider expansion into other products.
“The next step will be to use natural branding on edible skin products, such as apples or nectarines,” said Hagg. “If consumers react positively, there is no limit. We are planning to try it with melons in summer, as there is a problem there at the moment with stickers attaching to the skin.”
While the natural branding technique has been used in other European markets, ICA’s involvement is the largest trial to date.