NEW YORK

Reuters

Americans throw out billions of pounds of food every year because they falsely believe “sell-by” and “best-before” dates on package labels indicate food safety, researchers have found.

A study published Wednesday by Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that dates printed on packaged foods, which help retailers cycle through stocked products and allow manufacturers to indicate when a product is at its peak freshness, are inconsistent. They confuse consumers, leading many to throw out food before it actually goes bad.

“The labeling system is aimed at helping consumers understand freshness, but it fails - they think it’s about safety. And (consumers) are wasting money and wasting food because of this misunderstanding,” said co-author Emily Broad Lieb, who led the report from the Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Broad Lieb and NRDC scientist Dana Gunders said that, while labels “appear to be a rational system,” they are essentially meaningless to consumers. Manufacturers often decide on their own how to calculate shelf life and what the dates mean.

As a result, huge amounts of food, not to mention considerable natural resources and labor, go to waste in landfill and taxes, and harm the environment.

A lack of binding federal standards on labeling means the dates are governed by a patchwork of state and local laws.

“It’s like the Wild West,” Gunders said.

The authors recommended that “sell-by” dates be invisible to consumers so they cannot be misinterpreted as safety labels; that a clear, uniform date label system be established; and that “smart labels” that rely on technology to provide food safety information be used more frequently.

David Fikes, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers and wholesalers, said the group agreed there had to be a clearer way for the consumer to read dates. However, it disagreed the code should be hidden from consumers, because that would make it difficult for store employees to stock shelves. On Wednesday, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) released a statement pressing for a consistent federal food dating system.