Misinterpretation of food labels is a major contributor to food waste. In the UK, an estimated 30% of household food waste may be attributable to this consumer confusion. The 'best before' and 'use by' dates are statutory requirements in food packaging for products sold in the UK and in many other countries. But are they properly interpreted?
A new study in the US published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour shows that many consumers misinterpret food date labels, yet use them with confidence.
Consumer education is needed, the authors argue, to increase understanding of food date labels. Does it mean “spoiled - throw it out,” or “might not taste as good as it could anymore?”
Food date labels (e.g. “USE By August 16”) can play an important role in helping consumers make informed decisions about food, and ultimately prevent unsafe consumption and waste of food. Perhaps one problem is that this covers too wide a remit for the labelling. For example, food waste might conflict with a more judicious following of the labels. What does 'best' mean in this context. How quickly does food deteriorate after the 'best' date? Does our nose provide a better judge than a label? Who has not used that test?
Researchers surveyed 2,607 adults in the United States to assess consumer understanding of the streamlined 2-date labelling system and explore the relative effectiveness of educational messages in increasing understanding.
“Our study showed that an overwhelming majority of consumers say that they use food date labels to make decisions about food and say they know what the labels mean,” says Catherine Turvey, of the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Milken Institute School of Public Health, in Washington DC.
“Despite confidently using date labels, many consumers misinterpreted the labels and continued to misunderstand even after reading educational messaging that explained the labels’ meaning.”
Less than half (46 per cent) of study respondents knew that the “BEST If Used By” label specifically indicates that food quality may deteriorate after the date on the label. Less than one-quarter (24 per cent) of study respondents knew that the “USE By” label means that food is not safe to eat after the date on the label.
Researchers explored if framing the messages with values like saving money or avoiding waste, would impact the effectiveness of messages at increasing consumer understanding. Whilst none of the seven value frames tested was significantly more effective at increasing understanding than another, but all messages significantly increased consumer’s general understanding of the labels.
After viewing educational messages, 37 per cent of consumers still did not understand the specific meaning of the “BEST If Used By” label and 48 per cent did not understand the specific meaning of the “USE By” label.
The research suggests that date labels are so familiar that some consumers believe they are boring, self-explanatory, or common sense despite misunderstanding the labels. “Unwarranted confidence and the familiarity of date labels may make consumers less attentive to educational messaging that explains the food industry’s labelling system.”