Nav: Home

UMD researchers seek to reduce food waste and establish the science of food date labeling

May 14, 2020

Minimizing food waste is top of mind right now during the COVID-19 global pandemic, with the public concerned about the potential ramifications for our food supply chain. But even before COVID-19, given concerns about a rapidly growing population and hunger around the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) issued a global call for zero tolerance on food waste. However, the lack of regulation, standardization, and general understanding of date labeling on food products (such as "best by" and "use by" dates) leads to billions of dollars per year in food waste in the United States alone. Many people don't realize that date labels on food products (with the exception of infant formula) are entirely at the manufacturer's discretion and are not supported by robust scientific evidence. To address this concern and combat global food waste, researchers at the University of Maryland 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," says 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. As a consumer and as a mom, a best by date might raise food safety concerns, but date labeling and food safety are not connected to each other right now, which is a wide source of confusion. And when billions of dollars are just going to the trash because of this, it's not a small thing."

According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS), Americans discard or waste about 133 billion pounds of food each year, representing $161 billion and a 31% loss of food at the retail and consumer level. According to the FDA, 90% of Americans say they are likely to prematurely discard food because they misinterpret date labels because of food safety concerns or uncertainty on how to properly store the product. This simple confusion accounts for 20% of the total annual food waste in the United States, representing more than 26 billion pounds per year and over $32 billion in food waste.

"Food waste is a significant threat to food security," adds Paul Leisnham, associate professor in Environmental Science and Technology and co-author. "Recognition of food waste due to confusion over date labeling is growing, but few studies have summarized 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.

"We wanted to see the trends and give some suggestions, because the paper shows that we are some of the very few who are thinking about truly interdisciplinary research connecting food labeling to food waste," says Patra. "In fact, we were joking because one major finding was that environmental sciences and food science departments don't seem to collaborate on this topic, so we are doing something unique here at UMD."

"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, adds Leisnham. "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 labeling and connecting this to food quality and safety.

"Utilizing 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," says Pradhan. "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."

Patra stresses the importance of further collaboration through University of Maryland Extension (UME) to have maximum impact on food waste. "Where is the confusion coming from?," says Patra. "If we understand that, maybe we can better disseminate the information through our Extension work."

Patra adds, "Food is something that is involved in everybody's life, and so everyone needs to be a good food manager. But even now, there is no robust scientific evidence behind date labels, and yet those labels govern people's purchasing behavior. People look for something that has a longer 'best by' date thinking they are getting something better. And when you throw that food away, you are not only wasting the food, but also all the economics associated with that, like production costs, transportation from the whole farm to fork chain, and everything else that brought you that product just to be thrown away. Food safety, regulation, and education need to all combine to help solve this problem, which is why interdisciplinary collaboration is so important."
The paper, entitled "Evaluation of global research trends in the area of food waste due to date labeling using a scientometrics approach," is published in Food Control, DOI: j.foodcont.2020.107307.

University of Maryland

Related Food Safety Articles:

Amperometric sensors assist in analyzing food safety
Antioxidants are one of the most interesting and widely investigated compounds in life sciences due to their key role in the protection of living systems from the negative effects of free radicals.
Advancing frozen food safety: UGA evaluates environmental monitoring programs
Arlington, Va. - New research funded by the Frozen Food Foundation evaluates current environmental monitoring practices being implemented across the frozen food industry to prevent and control Listeria monocytogenes (Lm).
Advancing frozen food safety: Cornell develops novel food safety assessment tool
New research funded by the Frozen Food Foundation developed a modeling tool to assist the frozen food industry with understanding and managing listeriosis risks.
Computer program aids food safety experts with pathogen testing
Cornell University scientists have developed a computer program, Environmental Monitoring With an Agent-Based Model of Listeria (EnABLe), to simulate the most likely locations in a processing facility where the deadly food-borne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes might be found.
New graphene-based sensor design could improve food safety
In the US, more than 100 food recalls were issued in 2017 because of contamination from harmful bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella or E. coli.
Putting food-safety detection in the hands of consumers
MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a wireless system that leverages the cheap RFID tags already on hundreds of billions of products to sense potential food contamination -- with no hardware modifications needed.
Farmers market vendors need training to improve food-safety practices
Many vendors at farmers markets take inadequate precautions to prevent the spread of foodborne illness, and they should be trained to reduce food-safety risks, according to Penn State researchers who completed the final phase of an innovative five-year study.
Back to the future: Low-tech food-safety trainings still best for some audiences
While current training for food safety and sanitation usually incorporates high-technology presentations, such as videos and slide shows, there is still a need for low-tech approaches, according to Penn State researchers.
Majority of teenagers need food safety education
A new study from the University of Waterloo highlights a low level of awareness among youth around the proper precautions they need to take when it comes to handling food.
Fossilized algae hold promise for improved food safety testing
Researchers have used the fossilized remains of algae to take a key step toward being able to more sensitively detect harmful contaminants in food.
More Food Safety News and Food Safety Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Processing The Pandemic
Between the pandemic and America's reckoning with racism and police brutality, many of us are anxious, angry, and depressed. This hour, TED Fellow and writer Laurel Braitman helps us process it all.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Invisible Allies
As scientists have been scrambling to find new and better ways to treat covid-19, they've come across some unexpected allies. Invisible and primordial, these protectors have been with us all along. And they just might help us to better weather this viral storm. To kick things off, we travel through time from a homeless shelter to a military hospital, pondering the pandemic-fighting power of the sun. And then, we dive deep into the periodic table to look at how a simple element might actually be a microbe's biggest foe. This episode was reported by Simon Adler and Molly Webster, and produced by Annie McEwen and Pat Walters. Support Radiolab today at