Labeling policy and packaging technology look to reduce food waste, prolong shelf life

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Combating food waste has become a growing priority as consumers, companies and policymakers look for more sustainable products and solutions.

Last month, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., introduced the NO TIME TO Waste Act, a bipartisan and bicameral bill designed to support the federal government’s goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50% by 2030. Among other actions, the bill would initiate a national food waste education and public awareness campaign offering U.S. households methods for preserving and storing foods, and tips to identifying whether food is still safe and edible.

“Food waste has become a huge economic, social and environmental problem, but it can be solved leading to huge economic, social and environmental benefits,” says Susanne Lee, faculty fellow at the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. “This bill focuses on the most important and proven, cost-effective food waste and loss solutions — consumer education and food waste tracking/analytics.”

While this proposed legislation offers broad-based solutions and layers of coordination at the federal level, many states have proposed and enacted their own legislation aimed at reducing food waste as well, according to Harvard’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI) Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC). For instance, Nebraska now offers state-level tax incentives of up to $2,500 annually for grocery stores, restaurants and agricultural producers that donate Nebraska-grown fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy products or meat products.

Earlier this year, California State Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, introduced legislation requiring clear and consistent expiration dates on packaged food sold in the state. The bill, AB 660, is meant to assist consumers in understanding how long they can safely keep and consume products before discarding them.

This proposed bill, which has been passed by the Assembly and currently is making its way through the California Senate, would require expiration date labels to use the phrases “BEST if used by” to indicate peak freshness and “USE by” to indicate food safety. The bill prohibits the use of consumer-visible “Sell-By” dates.

Irwin notes studies have shown that consumers often throw away food before it has spoiled, and vague phrasing about expiration dates used on labels can be confusing. FDA estimates that this consumer uncertainty causes about 20% of food waste.

“Having to wonder whether our food is still good is an issue that we all have struggled with. By strengthening labeling standards and reducing food waste, AB 660 will keep money in the pockets of consumers while helping the environment and planet,” Irwin says.

Dating on some foods is required in many states, but federal law does not require product dating with the exception of infant formula. And while dating can help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality, dates (except for those on infant formula) are not an indicator of the product’s safety, according to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States, and as a result, a wide variety of phrases are used on labels to describe quality dates, such as “Best if Used By/Before,” “Sell-By,” “Use-By” or “Freeze By.”

In contrast, the European Union requires all packaged food products to display either “best before” for use as a quality indicator, or “use by” for food that may pose increased safety risks past the indicated date. Even so, a recent study on food waste from Wagenigen Food & Biobased Research in the Netherlands noted that less than half of European consumers understand the meaning of the best-before and use-by date. The study suggested that the use of additional text and visuals showing consumers what food is safe beyond the “best before” date and when it should be discarded might be helpful to reduce food waste.

• Keeping cheese fresh

On cheese, it’s important to keep in mind that a “best by” date is not an indicator of food safety but rather food quality, says Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR).

“It’s different with different varieties of cheese. The softer the cheese, the more rigidly people should consider that best-by date, or the quality will suffer,” Sommer says. “The harder the cheese, like with Cheddar and Parmesan, those best-by dates are a lot more fluid. If you see a best-by date on those cheeses, it’s pretty likely the cheese will be good for a lot longer.”

BelGioioso Cheese’s Sofia Auricchio Krans explains how the company’s various cheeses hold up past their best-by dates as long as the package remains unopened.

“Usually there is no risk in tasting a cheese that is past the best-by date, but the flavor might not be the same,” she says. “Fresh Mozzarella will eventually start to ferment past the best-by date even in a perfectly sealed package, but our Parmesan that has a best-by date of 365 days will get better over time.”

Quality packaging plays an important part in maintaining cheese quality through and beyond the best-by dates.

BelGioioso’s packaging team notes that the packaging used for its products depends on the type of cheese and packaging format.

For example, thermoforming applications use high-barrier films to increase the shelf life and help preserve product freshness. This type of packaging is ideal for Fresh Mozzarella products, as well as hard cheeses such as Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, Provolone and others.

Larger bulk applications used in foodservice applications, with a shelf-life target of 60-90 days, often use moderate barrier films with gas flushing to maintain product quality expectations. These are more economical from a pricing standpoint.

Cheeses like Gorgonzola require a vastly different type of film — essential with no barrier — to allow the mold to continue growing. These types of film allow oxygen transmission through the film at controlled amounts.

Packaging provider Amcor notes it’s critical to understand the cheese type and packaging format in order to recommend the ideal packaging solution for its customers to optimize the shelf life of their products.

“For oxygen barrier, non-respiring cheeses like Cheddar and Colby typically require the packaging with the lowest oxygen and moisture (water vapor) transmission rates,” says John Kearny, director of marketing-dairy, Amcor. “Some hard cheeses, often the alpine or Swiss varieties, require packaging materials that offer a higher respiration (lower oxygen transmission) rate to allow these products to respire over the course of their shelf life. To take it one step further, many soft cheeses such as Brie or Camembert require packaging with much higher respiration rates to achieve optimal shelf-life performance.”

The handling of cheese both before and after packaging also has a significant impact on shelf life and quality. Sommer notes that in its studies on how to extend cheese shelf life, CDR has found one of the best ways is to hold cheese in very cold temperatures that aren’t yet freezing — in the mid to low 30s Fahrenheit. In addition to temperature, light is another big factor in cheese degradation, especially once it goes into retail.

“The two big abusing issues in retail are temperature, not holding the cheese cold enough, and even moreso than that, light, which damages cheese and has negative qualities on the fat.”

Sommers notes that a short course CDR held last week included tasting two dozen retail samples of cheese, which greatly varied in quality.

“Quite a number were light damaged, causing an off flavor,” he says. “Even though the packaging and best-by dates were the same, those of us who were cheese graders could tell the cheese was wrecked through light damage.”

Beyond packaging and environmental controls, Sommers points to newer developments in cheesemaking cultures that are specifically designed to extend shelf life and quality.

“One of the things that really is coming on is protective microbes. We think of things like cheese cultures generating lactic acid and flavors, which are still critically important. But companies are coming out with bioprotective cultures not so much for the cheesemaking part, but for preventing yeasts from multiplying and preventing molds from multiplying and spoiling cheese. That’s a fascinating and rapidly growing part of the industry to help extend shelf life and preserve cheese.”

One development driving the need to extend shelf life in cheeses is the increasing demand for U.S. cheese from overseas. Working with Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Sommers notes CDR has hosted a number of groups from foreign countries that come to learn more about U.S. cheese, and the question invariably comes up on how to extend the shelf life of cheeses.

“The longer the best-by date, the better, since there are not always as elaborate distribution systems in other countries to keep cheese as cold,” he explains. “That’s caused us — CDR and others — to look at ways to extend shelf life longer and longer.”


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