Confusion around food labels and expiry dates results in millions of tons of food waste each year, estimated to cost consumers $29 billion in the United States (US) and nearly £0.6 billion in the United Kingdom (UK). While many people throw away food because they perceive a safety risk, most date labels are not designed to indicate safety. Rather, “sell by” dates provide instructions for retail staff, “best before” refers to quality, and “use by” is related to safety. Adding to the confusion, these are not the only terms consumers might see on their grocery item packaging.
The issue was brought to Walmart’s attention in 2013, when The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report that referred to date labels as “a key cause of the high and rising rates of waste in the United States.” The company responded by conducting some research within Walmart (which resulted in a white paper), surveying its suppliers and customers, and rolling out a campaign.
Walmart discovered its private label suppliers were using as many as 47 different kinds of date labels, then turned to its customers to determine what wording it should use for a new national standard. “Best if used by” was a “clear winner” with the consumer respondents, who said the language conveyed that “it doesn’t mean it’s bad after that day.”
Shortly after, the company announced a national standard for its Great Value foods to its merchants, which supply a diverse range of food products. Walmart’s action has the potential to create greater impact, as well, since many of the suppliers also sell products with their own labels outside of Walmart. Such changes are very low cost, since they mostly involve reprogramming printers. Suppliers started making the switch last year, and are expected to comply by the end of July.
To drive home the phrasing change and further help change people’s perception of the safety risk associated with the food and the listed date, a 30-second video explaining the new labels and offering tips for reducing food waste was played at Walmart checkout counters.
Whether the new labels will have an impact is yet to be seen, but it could be significant. Last year, WRAP estimated that 250,000 tons of food waste could be prevented annually in the UK alone if product life was extended by just one day.
Across the pond, industrial designer Solveiga Pakštaitė has invented a label that – instead of using a date – expires as food does to reveal bumps. Her patent-pending food expiry label, Bump Mark, uses gelatin as a “bio-reactive” layer that degrades at the same rate as the food inside the package. The gel is solid at the start, but turns into a liquid as it expires, allowing people to feel the bumps on the layer below.
“The jelly is completely contained and sealed within plastic film, so there's no slime oozing about,” Pakštaitė explained to Fast CoExist. “The film allows the gelatin to better replicate the conditions of the sealed food within the package.”
Gelatin is a natural food product which is high in protein, so it decays at similar rates to other protein foods. So far, Pakštaitė has been using it for different meats, and has found that Bump Mark can be calibrated to match various decay rates. She plans to explore the solution for other food groups in the future, and is investigating plant-based gels.
“I wanted to create a solution that would change people's attitude towards throwing away perfectly good food, and in turn their behavior,” she said. “This convinces them the food is fine, provided retailers have been honest and stored the food safely.”
Pakštaitė, who recently graduated from Brunel University in London, developed the idea as a third-year project. The design is an entry in this year’s Dyson Awards and Pakštaitė is developing the labels at the Central Research Laboratory. She is seeking partners to take the concept forward.