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Dual ("Soft" and "Hard") Expiration Dates on Food Products

Introduce soft and hard expiry dates on food products

Photo of An Old Friend
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Overview of the concept

A major source of waste is expired food products. Some of these are perfectly safe for human consumption beyond the expiration date, but are thrown away once the date is crossed. 

Expiration dates represent two purposes. First, for some products it provides an indication of the date beyond which the item loses part of its flavor or taste. In may cases, this does not make the product unfit for human consumption. Second, expiry dates are sometimes used to indicate the point in time beyond which consumption is not necessarily safe.

This "fuzziness" in the role of expiration dates leads to waste, as people throw away products on expiry, even if it safe for consumption beyond the date. Eliminating this ambiguity can lead to significant reduction in waste, both at homes and in stores.

Our suggestion is to have two expiry dates on food products - a soft or best-before date (indicated with a blue colored square in the illustration) to tell us when the product should be ideally consumed for best taste, and a hard date (indicated by a red dot) or 'use/consume by' date beyond which the food should be thrown away as it would be unfit for consumption. These days may be few days, or even possibly, several months apart.


How will this concept lead to reduction in food waste?

We think there are multiple possible benefits of using multiple expiration dates.

We can look at it from the point of view of both the retailer and the shopper.

The first is that 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.

The second advantage is that 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). 

Third, another consequence of having two dates could possibly be that consumers would feel comfortable consuming products close to the expiry date, and not throw it away close to the expiry date.

Lastly, consumers might also be more comfortable picking up products close to the expiry date at stores. All these can lead to overall waste reduction.

This can be coupled with a mechanism, which allows people to donate (or even re-sell) products which have crossed the "soft" date. 

Some ways to improve and build on this concept:

1. Introducing time-dependant stickers on products that makes consumers or retail stores easily aware about when the soft date is crossed (Similar ideas  - See http://www.google.com/patents/US6752430, Time dependent color-changing security indicator)

2. "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 chips that's crossed the soft date, and is placed in the "blue square", a shopper can can buy it, for her consumption or donate it immediately after purchase. (See a similar idea: http://suspendedcoffees.com/)

3. Food freshness indicator (See http://www.google.com/patents/US6723285)

Possible Challenges and Considerations while implementing this project:

1. This will require support from food manufacturers who may be hesitant to make changes to their current system. What is in it for them? Can manufacturers be incentivised?

2. How does this alter consumer purchase behavior? Are consumers willing to buy more products close to expirty dates?

3. How does this affect the demand structure of the product. Will consumers wait for the soft-expiry date to pick up the product, excepting a drop in prices?

4. How effective would be legislation?

5. How can this model be incorporated with other food-waste saving ideas (like food sharing apps)?

6. How to build awareness of this feature? What role does branding play.

7. What are the key components of the eco-system in retail stores nneded for this idea to succeed.

8. One challenge we foresee is customers/store-keepers noticing the soft-date at the right time. How can we solve this?

Data and Research

1. What fraction of food waste is because of expired products? Both at households and at stores?

2. What are the product category difference in the waste generated. For instance, how is food-waste for bread different from canned tuna.

3. What are the relevant user insights with regard to expiration dates. Do consumers pay attention to these dates? How does this factor into the purchase decision. How is this different for different categories.

4. Can  we emply field/lab experiments to generate useful insights on consumer behavior, potential waste-reduction, and impact on product category demand.

Similar Ideas that can be combined with this idea:

1. 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 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. 

2. 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.


Resources and References

1. EXPIRED is a short film that explores how misleading date labels on food products contribute to food waste in America. Also see this.

2. The Dating Game: Harvard FLPC and NRDC Publish Comprehensive Report on Food Expiration Dates


What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Look at expiration dates on products - How can it be identified more easily.

Tell us about your work experience:

I am researcher interested in innovation, creativity, design, ideation and marketing.

8 comments

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Photo of Emily Getty

I would pose the question that adding more information on packaged food may create more challenges while solving others. In fact, peeling off the sticker label on my apples bought from the store is a nuisance. How can we simplify labeling to provide required information and the information consumers want in a concise manner?

Photo of An Old Friend

Thanks Emily for the input.

In the case of fresh produce, I agree, we might not want to add extra labels. One way to reduce unnecessary labelling/packaging would be to have smart displays that provide information  (Similar idea:https://www.google.com/patents/US20130275261)

However, if the particular food item is generally packaged and sold, I don't think adding a small amount of additional information is going to be particularly troublesome.

Photo of Emily Getty

@TojinEapen the only reason I bring it up is because there are so many labels/certifications on packaged foods that it's difficult for the consumer to know what is useful and what is not and what information helps them take the decision to initially buy it, then eat it, and when to get rid of it.

Photo of An Old Friend

Yes, this could be a major challenge. Maybe a field-experiment can help us better understand how consumers process information and make decisions. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts!

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