Misunderstood food date labels and reported food discards: A survey of U.S. consumer attitudes and behaviors

Roni A. Neff, Marie Spiker, Christina Rice, Alexandra Schklair, Sally Greenberg, Emily Broad Leib

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Introduction: Food date labels such as “best before” and “sell by” are largely unregulated in the United States (U.S.), although new voluntary standards are coming into effect. A U.S. consumer survey was performed in April 2016 to inform policy and education activities related to date labels. Methods: The survey was administered online to a nationally representative sample of 1029 adults as part of a biweekly omnibus survey. Survey questions assessed the frequency of discarding food based on date labels by food type, interpretation of label language variations, and knowledge of whether date labels are currently regulated by the federal government. Results: 84% of consumers discard food near the package date at least occasionally. Among date labels assessed, “best if used by” was most frequently perceived as communicating quality, and both “expires on” and “use by” as communicating safety. Over 1/3 of participants incorrectly thought that date labeling was federally regulated, and 26% more were unsure. Respondents ages 18–34 and those with misunderstanding about date labels reported discarding food based on label dates with significantly more frequency than others. Conclusions: Misunderstanding the meaning of food date labels is strongly associated with reports of more frequent food discards. This survey provides new and policy-relevant insights about how Americans use and perceive date labels, and about language used in labeling that may be most effective at communicating desired messages to consumers. As date labeling becomes standardized, this research underlines the need for a strong accompanying communications campaign, and highlights a particular need to reach those ages 18–34.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-132
Number of pages10
JournalWaste Management
Volume86
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2019

Keywords

  • Communications
  • Consumer survey
  • Date labels
  • Expiration dates
  • Food policy
  • Food waste

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Waste Management and Disposal

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