Half of consumers may decide to pour out milk that has not yet gone out of date, based only on a glance at a date on the label, a new study published on June 12 found.
The peer-reviewed study, published in the academic journal Waste Management, detailed an experiment where researchers used eye-tracking technology to understand what consumers look at before they choose to throw away food.
The 68 participants in the study were given multiple types of milk that had “sell by,” “Best if used by,” “Use buy,” or no label on them. They were then asked if they would throw away the food.
The first eight milk containers were given to participants half empty with the same phrasing on the label highlighting a variety of expiration dates that ranged from 6 days after to a week before the study day and some samples were given with no label at all. Some samples contained fresh milk and some contained milk that the researchers had allowed to sour.
The researchers explained that they chose milk because it represented 12% of all food wasted by US consumers, a disproportionate amount.
Using the eye-tracking software, the researchers found that participants looked at the data on the label longer than the phrasing.
“We asked them if they intended to discard it, and if they said yes, it didn’t matter which phrase was there,” said Brian Roe, author of the study and professor of agricultural, environment and development economics at Ohio State University.
“As soon as we changed the printed date, that was a huge mover of whether or not they would discard or not. So we documented both where their eyes were and what they said was going to happen. And in both cases, it’s all about the date, and the phrase is second fiddle.
“But we were a bit surprised that over half of the viewing sessions featured no attention on the phrase whatsoever,” he said. “The date is more salient – you have to reference it against the calendar. It’s more actionable than the phrase is.
The researchers also found that while the quality of milk impacted the participants decision on whether to throw the milk away, the quality of the milk did not influence what participants spent the most time looking at on the label.
Sour milk was thrown away a third of the time more than milk that did not smell.
“The milk was intentionally made to smell a bit sour, and it didn’t really fundamentally change the fact that people really focus on the date,” Roe said.
The challenge of cutting down food waste
Policy makers are attempting to find new ways to reduce food waste, because of the impact that it has on the environment.
In the United States, consumer waste accounts for more than 48% of surplus food, according to the nonprofit ReFED.
One potential way, that has been suggested, to reduce the amount of food thrown away is by instilling a universal two-phrase system. The system would ensure that two dates are offered on all packing with universalized phrases. One date would say the date that the food would remain safe to eat until, the other would say when the food would have the highest quality.
“If you’re going to have an education campaign, it helps to have a set of phrases out there that people can cling to – but in the end, so few actually look at the phrase. They look at the date,” he said. “The date signifies a point after which you can expect quality to degrade. If you can get firms to push that date further out, then people are going to be willing to use the milk, or whatever it is, for a few more days, and waste a lot less food.”
“For policy reasons, it’s still important to narrow the phrases down to two choices. But that’s only the beginning – there needs to be a broader conversation about pushing those date horizons back to help minimize food waste,” Roe said.