Expired products represents a major source of food waste. I look at several possible ways that expiration dates can be redesigned to solve this problem.
My primary idea involves using two dates, a 'soft, best-before date and a 'hard', consume-by (also called donate-by date), which would enable customers in making informed decisions thereby reducing waste. The soft date date is termed as buffer date.
These dates should be accessible and visible to both retailers and end consumers. My plan would also involve developing an ecosystem that allows consumers and retail stores to donate the food products once the soft date is crossed.
I believe that a successful implementation involving careful user-centered design, incorporating retail data, studying consumer behaviour, and understanding various stakeholder incentives, would be novel, scalable and successful in reducing food waste.
Expiration dates have fuzzy intent. In some cases expiration dates represent a "best-before" date, where the food is safe for consumption beyond the particular date, but may not provide the ideal level of taste or flavor. In other cases, expiration dates represent a "use-by" or "consume-by" date, where the food is possibly unfit for consumption beyond the specified date. By resolving this ambiguity, for instance by providing dual dates, both a soft date and a hard date, we can reduce wastage.
- Dual expiration dates: At the first, and simplest form of implementation, we would have dual dates on every perishable food product - a soft, "best-before" date and a hard "use-buy" date. These dates may be several days, or even several months apart, depending on the food category. This itself can lead to significant reduction in waste (see below why).
- Donation: Beyond this, we can consider developing a ecosystem to enable consumers to donate products beyond the soft date.
- Technology: Third, we propose using technology to improve the above models - for instance, to help consumers identify soon to be expired products or share products with others.
How would this reduce the problem of food waste?
- The soft date acts as a trigger for customers to take action - either to consume or donate the food product.
- With dual dates, shoppers wouldn't hesitate picking up products close to the soft expiry date at stores.
- Consumers would feel comfortable consuming products close to the soft-expiry date.
- Retailers do not have to scramble to sell their products just before the expiration date. The soft date would allow them to keep it on the shelves for a longer time, as keeping it beyond the date, they would not fall foul of regulatory norms (if applicable)
- Food products beyond the soft date would not have to thrown away, but can be sold lower price, hence reducing waste, and possibly improving revenues for the retailer
- Food products beyond the soft-date can be donated (or sold/bartered online), both by the consumer and retailer.
Challenges and Considerations:
- This will require support from food manufacturers who may be reluctant to make changes to their current system. What is in it for them?
- How does this alter consumer purchase behaviour? Are consumers willing to buy more products close to expiry dates?
- How does this affect the demand structure of the product. Will consumers wait for the soft-expiry date to pick up the product, expecting a drop in prices?
- How effective would be legislation in implementing this idea?
- How can this model be incorporated with other food-waste saving ideas (like food sharing apps)?
- How to build awareness of this concept? What role does branding play in the success of this initiative?
- What are the key components of the ecosystem in retail stores and cities needed for this idea to succeed?
- One challenge we foresee is customers/store-keepers not detecting the soft-date at the right time. How can we solve this? How can we design the dates so that the information is more accessible to consumers and store employees.
Data and Research
- What fraction of food waste is because of expired products? It would be useful to have information both at household and at store-level?
- What are the product category differences in the waste generated. For instance, how is food-waste for bread different from canned tuna?
- What do we know about the nature of spoilage for different food categories? For instance, is there a concurrent decline in taste along with fitness for consumption?
- What are the relevant shopper insights with regard to expiration dates? Do consumers pay attention to these dates when making purchased? How does this factor into the purchase decision. How is this different for different categories of products?
- Can we employ field/lab experiments to generate useful insights on consumer behaviour, potential waste-reduction, and impact on product category demand.
Some related ideas:
- Introduce dynamic pricing for highly perishable products like bread. This can be incorporated on a dynamic price-sticker or a freshness indicator. For instance if a loaf of bread has a shelf life of seven days, the pricing can be ($4.00-X*0.25) - every day, the price reduces by 25 cents. This could solve a common problem where newer products like bread, milk are placed in stores, and items of the same product with older dates are present in the same rack. The consumer never picks up the older date, even if it has not crossed the expiration date.
- App (or feature in an existing app), which allows consumers (or stores) to scan food products while they purchase (or stack) it, which stores information on hard and soft dates. This app would alert consumers/store-keepers as the soft-date approaches. This information can be shared with others on the app.
- Introducing time-dependant stickers on products that makes consumers or retail stores easily aware about when the soft date is crossed (Here's a patent that describes a similar idea)
- "Shop and Drop" donation boxes in retail stores: Partner stores will have special locations with donation containers, where consumers can either pick-up products at a low cost or donate it immediately after purchase. For instance, if there is a bag of crisps that's crossed the soft date, a shopper can can buy it, for her consumption or donate it immediately after purchase at a donation bin. (See Suspended Coffee for a similar idea)
- App - Concept: We can build a software app that would help consumers better use the information available on expiration dates to incorporate waste-reduction in daily cooking. For instance, the consumer would scan expiration date information on purchase of the product. The app would then provide recipes for dishes that consumers can prepare using the items available in their pantry. The app would incorporate machine learning to dynamically provide recipes options that reduce waste by incorporating information on the product expiration. (Update: See more on this idea here)
- A supermarket in Denmark that sells only expired food.
- Expired - A documentary on expiration dates and food waste.
- Food freshness indicator patent
- The Dating Game
- Trash It or Eat it? - health.clevelandclinic.org
- Can you eat foods after their best-by dates? KGW.com
- H.R.5298 - Food Date Labeling Act of 2016
- Fixing Expiration Dates Won’t Solve Food Waste
- Michael Tsiros, Carrie M. Heilman (2005) The Effect of Expiration Dates and Perceived Risk on Purchasing Behavior in Grocery Store Perishable Categories. Journal of Marketing: April 2005, Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 114-129.
- Faruk Anıl Konuk. (2015) The effects of price consciousness and sale proneness on purchase intention towards expiration date-based priced perishable foods. British Food Journal 117:2, 793-804.
- Aristeidis Theotokis, Katerina Pramatari and Michael Tsiros. (2012) Effects of Expiration Date-Based Pricing on Brand Image Perceptions. Journal of Retailing 88:1, 72-87.