At present, there are no federal regulations related to date labels on food products, aside from infant formula. Date labeling regulations are left up to states, which means consumers are left trying to sort out a patchwork of confounding terms. “Sell by,” “use by,” “freshest on,” and “expires on” are just a few of the phrases currently being used on food products.
Reps. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) and Dan Newhouse (R., Wash.) introduced the bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act, a bill designed to end consumer confusion around food date labeling and ensure Americans do not throw out perfectly good food. Studies have shown that Americans are confused by food date labels, resulting in a significant amount of edible food ending up in landfills. H.R. 3981 will reduce food waste by standardizing date labels on food products. Pingree and Newhouse serve as co-chairs of the Congressional Food Recovery Caucus.
The bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act establishes an easily understood food date labeling system – “BEST If Used By” communicates to consumers that the quality of the food product may begin to deteriorate after the date and “USE By” communicates the end of the estimated period of shelf life, after which the product should not be consumed. Under the legislation, food manufacturers will decide which food products carry a quality date or a discard date. The Pingree-Newhouse legislation will also allow food to be sold or donated after its labeled quality date, helping more perfectly good food reach those who need it.
“Estimates indicate that around 90% of Americans prematurely throw out perfectly safe food, in part because of confusion about what date labels mean, meanwhile 38.4 million Americans are food insecure,” said Pingree. “This bill is an opportunity for the federal government to reduce confusion across the food supply chain and make sure no one is going hungry or inadvertently hurting our environment. With this piece of legislation, we can help ensure food is being used and eaten, rather than thrown out due to confusion.”
“Food labeling is important for consumer education, but the current practice is confusing and outdated. This bill takes a step toward reducing food waste by helping consumers understand the meaning behind date labels. The legislation also helps restaurants and grocery stores bridge the gap when it comes to donating food to shelters, food banks and other charitable organizations. I am proud to serve with Representative Pingree as co-chair of the Food Recovery Caucus as we work to help Americans waste less and save money,” said Newhouse.
“Most Americans don’t know the ‘best by’ date label on items at the grocery store aren’t based on safety or science. These completely arbitrary food date labels are confusing and costly for customers. Our commonsense measure to establish a uniform national date labeling system would provide consumers with clarity—helping them save money on their grocery bills and preventing perfectly safe food from going to waste,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Ct.) who has introduced the Senate companion bill.
Forty percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted, costing the nation $161 billion annually. It is estimated that if all food waste represented an individual country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally. Domestic food production accounts for 50% of U.S. land use, 80% of fresh water consumption, and 10% of the total energy budget. Consequently, recovering food helps to ensure that the hard work and resources that go into producing food is not wasted.
According to years of research on date labels at Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Emily Broad Leib noted that confusion over these labels is one of the leading causes of food waste in the U.S. She noted 84% of consumers throw food away after the date, even though for most foods the date is just an indicator of quality or taste.
“Fortunately, this is also one of the most solvable issues – standard date labels that distinguish between quality dates and discard dates can make clear what these dates mean and help reduce waste at businesses, households and food banks,” she said.
Jackie Suggitt, stakeholder engagement director at ReFED, a multi-stakeholder non-profit designed to reduce food waste, said standardized date labeling is one of the most cost-effective solutions for driving reductions in wasted food, and a significant amount of groundwork has been laid. “However, there continue to be barriers to adoption for food manufacturers, including highly varied state-level requirements around both the date label language and the ability to donate food past the labeled date. ReFED supports federal policy efforts that overcome these barriers and accelerate food waste reduction,” Suggitt said.
The food industry has also voiced support for the legislation. Chris Hood, president of Kellogg North America, welcomed the legislative leadership to standardize product code labels to provide greater clarity and reduce consumer confusion that can often lead to food waste.
“As part of our next-generation Kellogg’s® Better Days commitment, we pledged to reduce organic waste by 50 percent, including food waste, across our facilities. Kellogg is committed to doing our part to combat food waste and to empower our consumers with information to make informed decisions,” Hood said.