Written by The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic
Today, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Chellie Pingree introduced companion bills to standardize food date labels across the United States. We at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) enthusiastically support these bills. We have been working since the release of our 2013 report, The Dating Game: How Confusing Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America (published in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council), to push for standardization of date labels. A recent report by the collaborative group ReFED, Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste by 20 Percent, found that standardizing date label is the single most cost effective of twenty-seven solutions to reduce the 40% of food that goes to waste each year in the United States.
A major contributor to this food waste is the failure of the current date labeling system: with the exception of infant formula, there are no federal standards for date labels. In the absence of federal law, states have enacted a dizzying variety of date label laws. This has led to hardly any consumers being able to identify what date labels mean, which causes consumers to throw away perfectly good food and some states to even ban or restrict past-date food sales. But these dates are generally not intended to communicate safety information; instead, they signal a manufacturer's estimate of how long food will taste its best. Unfortunately, consumers mistakenly believe that these dates are indicators of safety and many report throwing food away once the date passes, due to fear of safety risks. FLPC just released data from a national survey (conducted with the National Consumers League and Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future) that illustrates how consumer confusion over date labels impacts the amount of food waste nationally, and leads to 84% of consumers throwing food away when the date passes. When consumers misinterpret these indicators of quality as indicators of safety, the amount of food that is discarded greatly increases, which is bad for consumers’ wallets, the food system, and the environment.
The proposed legislation is a great step forward and will benefit many American families while preserving our environment. The bill’s central proposal is the standardization of date labels through the use of a dual label system, which would provide clarity by reducing the available labeling language to two phrases: one quality date indicator and one safety date indicator. The legislation would allow manufacturers to include a date indicating a food product’s quality, as long as the date is indicated by the standard phrase “best if used by.” Because quality is subjective, the use of a quality date would be optional. Under the legislation, a safety date, indicated by the standard language “expires on,” would be required on a small group of foods identified by the FDA and USDA as being those that could become less safe after the date. Our recent consumer research found that 70% of consumers already believe “best if used by” indicated quality, and 54% believe “expires on” is intended to indicate safety.
In addition to the standard label language, the legislation will standardize laws surrounding sale and donation of past-date foods. Food banks, soup kitchens, and non-traditional food recovery models all rely heavily on food donations, including donations of wholesome past-date foods, to serve food insecure Americans. In the current labeling system, 20 states restrict or prohibit the sale or donation of past-date food. For example, Montana requires that milk bear a sell by date that is 12 days post-pasteurization, and bans sale or donation of milk after that date, leading to thousands of gallons of unnecessary waste (to see a recent FLPC video about this, visit www.notreallyexpired.com). The proposed legislation would eliminate laws like Montana’s that bar the sale or donation of food past the quality date. However, states would still be allowed to prohibit the past-date sale or donation of foods bearing the “expires on” safety label.
Finally, and importantly, the legislation would direct the FDA to coordinate with USDA and the FTC to ensure that date labels are standardized across products, and would require those agencies to support this legislation with a consumer education campaign. In order for the new labeling system to have its intended effect, consumers must understand what the labels mean. Since date labels have been unregulated for so long, public education about the meanings of the new labels will be particularly important. As government agencies charged with protecting consumers, the FDA and USDA are in a unique position to reduce confusion around date labels and ensure successful implementation of the new law.
Senator Blumenthal and Representative Pingree’s legislation offers the chance to create a monumental change in the consumer confusion surrounding date labels and the unnecessary food waste that results from this confusion. Food waste contributes to lost income at the household level, a reduction of food available for those in need, and tremendous environmental impacts. Reducing the amount of wholesome food wasted in the U.S. will improve the environment and increase food security. FLPC is pleased to support this bill, which will bring much-needed clarity to this country’s date labeling system.