Readers: I might be posting a bit sporadically over the next few weeks. I'm still kind of recovering from last month's 29 straight days of new recipes.
Why do we require "sell by" dates on food?
Well, ostensibly, it's to protect consumers. Nobody wants themselves or their loved ones to become sickened--or worse, killed--by food that's past its prime.
Unfortunately, greater safety usually involves tradeoffs. We could require perfectly safe cars, for example, but they would cost $infinity (and probably get really really bad gas mileage). Likewise, we could make our food supply perfectly safe, but we'd end up requiring food distributors and retailers to date food so conservatively that they'd be forced to throw out a nauseatingly high percentage of it.
This will make food prices go up. A lot. It's an obvious tradeoff, because farmers, transportation and delivery companies and the entire food retailing industry will need to recoup the cost of a far greater level of food waste.
And then there's the planet to think about. From an environmental standpoint, there's nothing more wasteful than using up perfectly good land to plant and grow food, then using energy to harvest it and take it to market... just so you can later throw that food away and have it decompose in a dumpster or landfill and give off still more greenhouse gases.
Worst of all, imagine requiring the disposal of food when there are people in our communities who might need that food to survive. All because of some dates and numbers somebody stamped on the outside of the package.
So, readers, where do you place your priorities? Towards food safety? Or towards minimizing food waste?
Do you think we should place relatively short term sell-by dates on food? Or are you willing to trust food consumers with some degree of agency and choice in deciding for themselves what foods are past their prime or not?
Or, do you think, as Ralph Nader so revealingly said, "the consumer must be protected at all times from his own indiscretion and vanity"--and therefore we consumers must defer to regulators and the government on this question?
If we choose the latter, who then do we go to to solve the problem of food waste? To the same regulators who inadvertently created the problem by requiring stringent sell by dates in the first place?
Share your thoughts!
Read Next: When Do You Throw Out Food? A Question for Readers
The inspiration for today's post came from a letter to the editor in an Australian newspaper, which I featured a few weeks ago in a Friday Links post.
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