Expiration Date Details on Packaging: Influencing Household Food Waste Habits

A recent study conducted by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has identified the misunderstanding of expiration date labeling, specifically use-by and best-before dates, as a significant contributor to food waste in households. This confusion often leads consumers to discard perfectly good food prematurely to err on the side of caution. Therefore, improving consumers’ comprehension of the distinction between these date labels could play a crucial role in reducing food waste.

In this study, researchers explored whether providing additional information on product packaging could help consumers differentiate between use-by and best-before dates, thereby influencing their food waste behaviors. Previous research had shown that consumers frequently misinterpret these date labels, resulting in unnecessary food disposal. To build on prior findings, the study investigated the impact of extra on-pack information on consumers’ intentions regarding expired foods and its applicability in real-life food management scenarios.

The study involved a behavioral experiment where participants were given 12 products with fictional expiration dates, including eight that had “expired” and four that were still “non-expired.” Their task was to assemble a snack platter using these products as long as they remained safe to consume. Half of the participants received products with additional date-marking information, presented as visual cues along with explanatory text on the packaging, while the other half received the same products without this extra information.

The goal was to assess whether consumers noticed and comprehended this information, whether it aided them in distinguishing between best-before and use-by dates, and whether it influenced their decisions to use or discard food items in a realistic setting, ultimately contributing to food waste reduction.

The results indicated that the supplementary on-pack information influenced behaviors differently for foods beyond their use-by dates versus those beyond their best-before dates. Notably, foods past their use-by date were more frequently discarded when extra information was present on the packaging, a favorable outcome from a food safety perspective.

However, for foods surpassing the best-before date, the study did not demonstrate a significant impact on food discard choices, as these items were hardly discarded at all. Further research is necessary to explore whether providing additional on-pack information can effectively reduce food waste among less educated consumers or for food items with longer best-before periods.

Interestingly, the study found that behavioral effects occurred regardless of consumers’ understanding of date-marking terminology, suggesting that simply explaining the terms does not automatically lead to the desired actions. Instead, the extra information should focus on guiding consumers on what to do with foods that have passed their expiration date.

Sanne Stroosnijder, program manager for Food Loss and Waste Prevention at WFBR, emphasized the importance of such research, noting that only a few studies assess the actual impact of interventions on consumer food waste behaviors at home. Designing such studies while maintaining consumers’ unawareness of the study’s purpose and measuring food waste behaviors in natural settings is challenging but essential for understanding how to facilitate consumers’ comprehension of date labeling and reduce food waste at home.

Source: Wageningen University

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