To Eat or Not to Eat? The Food Date Labeling Act Could Help You Decide

We toss so much food because we’re not sure if it’s safe to eat past the ‘sell by’ date. A federal bill proposed yesterday would standardize food date labels and could reduce waste in the process.


Update: On December 12, 2016, the USDA issued new guidance encouraging food manufacturers and retailers that apply product dating to use the “Best if Used By” date label.

If you’ve ever argued with your significant other about whether to eat something that has been in your cupboard for a while, you’re not alone.

“One of the most common arguments people seem to have at home is about whether or not food should be thrown out just because the date on the label has passed. It’s time to settle that argument, end the confusion, and stop throwing away perfectly good food,” Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) announced in a statement she released yesterday in conjunction with a federal bill called Food Date Labeling Act.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) proposed an identical bill in the Senate, and the two lawmakers hope to do more than reduce domestic disputes. They’re also planning to help consumers waste less food.

Date labels come with a wide range of messages—from “use by,” to “sell by,” and “best before”—and a lack of consistent regulation from state to state has often led to unnecessary waste. Many consumers assume that date labels indicate that food is unsafe to eat, and they end up tossing it with the reasoning that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In reality, however, most “sell by” labels refer to the date after which the manufacturer has decided the quality of the food might be less than ideal. In some cases, it might mean that the taste, texture, or consistency has changed.

The Food Date Labeling Act aims to standardize food date labeling, and simplify regulatory compliance. It seeks to require all food manufacturers to use just two standardized labels: “best if used by” to indicate quality, and “expires on” for safety. It also calls for consumer education to help Americans better understand date labels; the allowance of the sale or donation of food past its quality date; and cooperation between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in standardizing the labels.

“This common sense legislation will provide consumers with clarity that will help them save money on their grocery bills and prevent perfectly safe food from going to waste,” Senator Blumenthal said.

Our Food Waste Record

America leads the world when it comes to wasting food. An estimated 40 percent of all the food produced here ends up in the trash, compared to 30 percent globally. And that wasted food consumes 25 percent of the fresh water used to grow crops, on 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land, as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points out.

Consumers are accountable for the largest portion of the $162 billion in food we waste every year—more than either grocery stores or restaurants waste.

Last year, the Obama administration set a goal of reducing food waste by half, by 2030, as did the United Nations. Stakeholders believe the new food date label bill will help reach that goal. A recent report by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), looked at 27 cost-effective solutions and identified date labeling as among the top strategies for reducing unnecessary waste.

Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, says the new federal bill could cut through the confusion caused by “a dizzying array of state date label laws that are not based in science or food safety.” Lawmakers in California, often a trailblazer on green measures, attempted to introduce a similar bill earlier this year, but it failed. Leib explains that the food industry pushed back, because it’s hard to regulate this at the state level, given the costs and complications involved, and with food being shipped inter-state.

Labels Could be an Easy Way to Reduce Confusion

Leib led a team that conducted a national survey that looked at how consumers perceive such labels and found that one third of consumers always toss food past the date and 85 percent do it at least occasionally. Most consumers also assumed the dates were federally regulated.

“Too many people think that the “use by” date is an indicator of safety. But if that’s not about safety, let’s make it clear to people,” she says.

Back in 2013, Leib authored a report about date labels and food waste called The Dating Game with Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the NRDC and the author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. The report received a great deal of press attention, which put the issue on the radar of legislators like Blumenthal.

Gunders says date labels are “one of the easiest steps that can be taken right now. It’s low-hanging fruit that will clarify consumer understanding and help change the habit of tossing food when in doubt.”

Labeling Circa 1970s

Leib worked with Senator Blumenthal’s staff to help draft the federal bill. She became involved in date labels when one of her clients, Doug Rausch, brought up the issue and wanted to know how to collect food that was passed date and sell it in neighborhoods without access to quality food. (He later went on to launch the Daily Table.)

Manufacturers began using quality-based date labels in the 1970s in an effort to manage their brands and ensure people didn’t eat food that was not at its best, Leib explains. So the dates were set conservatively, but have since been misinterpreted. The Harvard food law and policy clinic recently released a film, “Expired,” to explain this to consumers.

Why haven’t the rules been standardized in 40 years?

“It’s sort of like cleaning out your closet—it’s something everyone puts off and for legislators it wasn’t even on their radar until recently,” Gunders says. “Now it’s an easy, obvious first step.”

The ReFed report found that 8 million pounds of food waste could be reduced each year if date labels were standardized and consumers could save 5 to 10 percent of their grocery money, depending on how effective consumer education is, explains Gunders, who serves on the ReFed committee.

Bill has Wide Appeal

The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) says it decided in January to work with retailers and other industry groups to reduce consumer confusion around date labeling, and it believes a national date labeling standard is crucial in providing consumers with the clarity they need.

“We look forward to working with Representative Pingree and Senator Blumenthal to find the best way to streamline date labeling language, reduce food waste, and increase food donated to those in need,” Maggie McClain, director of media relations at GMA, said in an email.

The fact that retailers, manufacturers, and consumers all have the potential to benefit from this bill means it “has unique potential to get approved,” says Gunders. “Everyone on both sides of the aisle seem to agree there’s nothing partisan about food waste.”

 

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