Written by Katie Sandson, J.D. ’17, Harvard Law School; Images provided by Senator Richard Blumenthal’s office
I have been a clinical student in the Food Law and Policy clinic since January 2016. As a continuing clinical student this semester, I have been working on FLPC’s food waste and food recovery initiatives, including work on the clinic’s expiration date project. As part of its efforts to standardize date labels at the federal level, FLPC has drawn attention to this problem through the creation and promotion of a short film, EXPIRED? Food Waste in America. The film tells the story of how a restrictive date labeling rule in Montana has required countless gallons of wholesome milk to be needlessly discarded once the milk reaches a labeled date that has no basis in safety or science. Montana’s rule is just one example of similarly restrictive rules in place throughout the country.
Throughout the semester, I have worked to promote the film and raise awareness about the connection between date labels and food waste. Two weeks ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. with the clinic to attend a number of events related to our date labeling projects, including two screenings of the EXPIRED film in two very different settings. On Sunday, I helped give a presentation on date labels at the National Food Recovery Dialogue hosted by the Food Recovery Network. On Tuesday, FLPC’s director Emily Broad Leib and clinical fellow Christina Rice participated in a panel on date labels hosted by Senator Richard Blumenthal’s Office. Senator Blumenthal has announced plans to introduce legislation to standardize date labels at the federal level, an effort FLPC has supported throughout the process.
Our audience for the presentation at the National Food Recovery Dialogue was largely, but not entirely, made up of college students who already had hands-on experience with food recovery. For me, the most exciting part of this event was seeing the students’ engagement with the film and the other background information we presented. For example, students came up after the presentation to ask about how they could use the information we had discussed in their efforts to donate past-date products from their campus dining services. Students also took time during and after the presentation to explore the film’s website and look through The Dating Game, FLPC’s extensive report on date labels
The panel on Capitol Hill had a very different audience: the event was largely attended by Congressional staffers, although other people with an interest in food waste and food recovery also attended. The panel began with remarks from Senator Blumenthal, followed by the EXPIRED film, presentations by the panelists, and a moderated question-and-answer section. The most interesting part of this event for me was the diversity in voices and backgrounds on the panel. Because date labels play an integral role in consumer confusion and food waste, parties ranging from environmental groups, to anti-hunger organizations, to food manufacturers and retailers, may all be invested in standardizing date labels, which could lead to powerful alliances and widespread support.
At the same time, however, each of these groups approaches the issue with slightly different priorities. For example, Steve Armstrong, chief food law counsel at Campbell Soup, was concerned about making sure clear standards existed for scientifically dating different types of foods. Carrie Calvert, director of tax and commodity policy at Feeding America, was most concerned with confusion among food bank volunteers and recipients about what food is good to eat, and therefore seemed particularly invested in the educational components of date label reform.
Ultimately, the range of concerns expressed at the panel reminded me of the importance of events like the panel hosted by Blumenthal, or the National Food Recovery Dialogue, both of which brought together people from different sectors. These events allow parties to identify places of overlap and form collaborations outside their normal circles, and to discuss areas where priorities may differ, or where different groups may be able to educate one another. These events also reinforced the importance of tools like our film, which we were able to use to inform these very different discussions.
I am grateful to have spent four days hearing from students, non-profit leaders, and congressional staffers motivated by various concerns to address this country’s date labeling problem. I hope that learning about their different priorities helps me connect with a broader audience as we continue efforts to reform date labels.