Addressing lack of science with food date labels
In the US, most date labels on food products (with the exception of infant formula) are at the manufacturer's discretion and are not supported by robust scientific evidence. The lack of regulation, standardisation and general understanding of date labelling on food products (such as "best before" and "use by" dates) can lead to billions of dollars in food waste every year.
To address this concern and combat global food waste, researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) have come together across departments in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources with the goal of clarifying the science, or lack thereof, behind food date labels, highlighting the need for interdisciplinary research and global research trends in their new publication in Food Control.
"We have 50 different types of date labels that are currently used in the US because there is no regulation — best by, best if used by, use by — and we as consumers don't know what these things mean," said Debasmita Patra, assistant research professor in Environmental Science and Technology and lead author on the paper. "The labeling is the manufacturer's best estimation based on taste or whatever else, and it is not scientifically proven. But our future intention is to scientifically prove what is the best way to label foods."
According to Paul Leisnham, associate professor in Environmental Science and Technology and co-author: "Recognition of food waste due to confusion over date labelling is growing, but few studies have summarised the status of the research on this topic."
This was the goal of their latest publication, gathering support and background for their future work to reduce food waste, and providing guidance for future areas of research in this field. In order to achieve this, Patra enlisted Leisnham in her own department, but also relied on computational support and food quality and safety expertise from Abani Pradhan, associate professor in Nutrition and Food Science, and his postdoctoral fellow Collins Tanui, both co-authors on the paper.
"Our paper underlined the fact that future research on food waste and date labeling needs to take an interdisciplinary approach to better explore the perspectives of multiple stakeholders,” Leisnham added. "Expertise from environmental science, food science, sociology, Extension education, and other disciplines can more effectively develop interventions to reduce behaviors that may increase food waste. This is an environmental issue, but involves the knowledge, attitudes, perceptions, and social behaviors of multiple stakeholders, including retailers, food-service providers, and diverse consumers."
The collaboration between environmental sciences and food sciences at UMD is an example of this collaboration in action, with the goal of establishing what science, if any, already underlies date labelling and connecting this to food quality and safety.
"Utilising my expertise in experimental and mathematical modeling work, we aim to scientifically evaluate the quality characteristics, shelf life, and food spoilage risk of food products," Pradhan said. "This would help in determining if the food products are of good quality beyond the mentioned dates, rather than discarding them prematurely. We anticipate to reduce food waste through our ongoing and future research findings."
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