Last week, the California state legislature passed two bills aimed at reducing food waste and increasing food recovery. The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) has been working closely with advocates in California since the inception of both bills and we are thrilled to announce their passage. AB 954 seeks to reduce consumer confusion and food waste by encouraging the use of standard date labeling phrases on food products, while AB 1219 encourages the donation of wholesome surplus food by expanding liability protections for food donations. The bills must be approved by the governor by October 15 in order to become law.
Each year, about 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted. In California alone, 5.5 million tons of food ends up in landfills each year. A significant contributor to this food waste is the current date labeling system. With the exception of infant formula, there are no federal standards for date labeling. In the absence of federal law, states have enacted a broad range of date label laws, and manufacturers use a dizzying variety of date labeling language on food products. 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 often 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. According to a national survey we conducted along with the National Consumers League and Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future, 84% of consumers at least occasionally throw food away when the date passes. When consumers misinterpret these indicators of quality as indicators of safety, more food is wasted, which is bad for consumers’ wallets, the food system, and the environment.
FLPC has been pushing for the standardization of date labels 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), and standardizing date labels has been found to be the single most cost-effective solution to reducing food waste in the U.S. In recent years, bills to standardize date labels have been introduced at the state and federal level. Additionally, in February of this year, the Food Manufacturing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America launched a voluntary industry initiative encouraging manufacturers and retailers to use standard date labeling phrases on their products.
The passage of AB 954, introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), will reduce food waste by encouraging the standardization of date labels in California. AB 954 requires the California Department of Food and Agriculture and Department of Public Health to publish information encouraging food manufacturers, processors, and retailers to use standard labeling terms on food products. The law promotes the use of the terms “BEST if Used by” or “BEST if Used or Frozen by” to indicate a quality date, and the use of the terms “USE by” or “USE or Freeze by” to indicate a safety date. The law also encourages manufacturers to develop alternatives to consumer-facing “sell-by” dates, which can increase confusion among consumers.
In addition to date labels, California has also begun to address the issue of liability protections for food donations. Donating safe, edible food to those in need can significantly reduce the amount of food being sent to landfills and support food security goals in the state. Yet, across the U.S., many businesses fail to donate foods because they do not know about available liability protections, are fearful because of unclear provisions, or are hesitant to incur additional costs needed to comply with relevant regulations. A 2016 survey conducted by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance found that 44% of manufacturers, 25% of retailers and wholesalers, and 39% of restaurants identified liability concerns as a top barrier to donating food. There is clearly a lot of work to be done to clarify the scope of existing liability coverage and expand these protections to better align with the current food recovery landscape.
Last week, the California state legislature passed the California Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (AB 1219), which was introduced by Assemblymember Eggman (D-Stockton). Before introduction of AB 1219, food facilities donating food fit for human consumption to a food bank or nonprofit charitable organization were not liable for any damage or injury resulting from consumption of the food, unless the injury was the result of negligence or a willful act when preparing or handling the donated food. AB 1219 expands those protections to gleaners and individuals who donate food, and narrows the liability to those cases in which the injury resulted from gross negligence or intentional misconduct. This language mirrors the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which provides federal-level liability protections for food donors. Finally, AB 1219 explicitly protects donations of past-date foods, provided that if the food is perishable, the person distributing the food to the end recipient makes a good faith judgment that the food is wholesome. Overall, the bill significantly improves liability protections for food donors across the state, giving Californians the tools they need to address food waste and food insecurity at the same time.
We applaud advocates and legislators in California for their efforts to reduce the waste of healthy, wholesome food across the state. These bills represent important steps that will improve the environment and increase food security, while saving money for consumers, businesses, and government.