By Shunying Wang, Guest Writer

Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes into the trash due to the misinterpretation of food expiration dates.

A study conducted by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and Natural Resources Defense Council found food date labels often mislead consumers to believe the dates indicate food safety. Nine out of 10 Americans toss away food once it passes the expiration date, even though the food is still safe and contains nutritious value.

“I absolutely believe that it is misleading, and I absolutely believe that we as consumers throw away product that is completely fine,” Erin McGinnis, the director of Dining and Culinary Services at Pacific Lutheran University, said. McGinnis said the study is “eye-opening on several levels” because it challenges us to reconsider date labels — sell by, used by, and best before dates — on food.

“Many manufacturers, whether it’s prepared or fresh food, want to have a best-by date, and what they are looking for is to provide the maximum amount of freshness and flavor,” Tom Harvey, the retail operations manager at PLU, said. He pointed out that all the different terms for expiration dates are very similar in definition and can be used to replace one another.

According to the study, having no serious measures for food date labeling in this country has led to approximately $160 billion worth of food being wasted each year.

“I didn’t know on a national scope how much food is wasted,” Harvey said. “It is a shame with so many people who don’t have access to food, and how much we in the United States put in the trash that could have been consumed.”

When it comes to deciding how long food items can last sold at PLU before they go bad, both the quality and safety issue matter, McGinnis said. “Depending on what kind of product it is, we have to look at all of the ingredients and decide what we would determine would be the shelf life for them,” she said.

As the director who oversees all the on-campus food services, McGinnis said she and her team members uphold PLU’s sustainability mission statement by effectively using the resources from the university.

“For me, I feel like we still have room to grow, and we will always have room to grow,” McGinnis said. “I think where we have room to grow is … to try to really tighten up what food we bring in, like as a raw product to make something, to the point where we are just exactly using what we bring in.”

Harvey said the key to reduce food waste at the retail locations is to try to sell the last product to the customers at the last hour of the day. Other methods such as training employees about product rotation can be helpful as well. “It is very important that products get rotated,” Harvey said. “Manufacturers realize the products do sell better while they are fresher.”

But when there is inevitable food waste, it will either be donated to local food banks or will be sent away to be composted.

“One of the things that is very important about [the study] is the idea about sustainability on the other side,” McGinnis said. “Our big goal with product waste, with pull date, with all of those things is to make sure that we are ordering as lean as we can and still providing the students with the experience that they want.”

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