The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), in partnership with Racing Horse Productions, today released the short film EXPIRED? Food Waste in America in the Los Angeles Times. EXPIRED explores how misleading date labels on food products contribute to food waste in America. Every year, 40% of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten, leading to 160 billion pounds of wasted food in our landfills.
As FLPC explained in its 2013 report, The Dating Game: How Confusing Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, the date labels on food products are a major cause of this unnecessary waste. Because the federal government has no standardized regulations for these dates, labeling practices are governed by inconsistent state regulations and industry discretion. As a result, the date labels consumers see on foods –“use by,” “best before,” “sell by”—are misleading. Most consumers believe that date labels are safety indicators, when in fact, the labels are meant to indicate when food will be at its peak taste. Although there is no uniform regime for determining these dates and they are not related to safety, states often regulate the sale or donation of food items after the date listed on the label. This confusing system leads manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to discard food that is perfectly safe to sell or eat.
Through the production of EXPIRED, FLPC and Racing Horse Productions sought to explore the information presented in The Dating Game in a new and more accessible format. FLPC students and staff worked with professional filmmakers Rebecca Richman Cohen of Racing Horse Productions and Nathaniel Hansen to plan, edit, and produce the film. FLPC Director Emily Broad Leib says “FLPC students worked on this film as the media advocacy component of a greater project conducting legal and policy research, educating consumers and policymakers, and pushing for policy change to reduce the waste of healthy, wholesome foods in the United States. By working with Racing Horse Productions, together we were able to empower students to tell this compelling story in a strategic and sophisticated way, in order to effectively sway public opinion and affect policy change.”
The film focuses on Montana’s date labeling law, which requires all milk to be labeled with a sell-by date no later than twelve days after pasteurization and prohibits the sale or donation of milk after passage of that date. Montana’s restrictive date labeling law for milk has resulted in thousands of gallons of milk being thrown away and has led to higher milk prices in the state. Unfortunately, Montana’s law is just one example of the many state date labeling laws that cause confusion and lead to food waste. Broad Leib says “Consumers suffer because milk in Montana costs more than neighboring states. But while this is the most restrictive state law in the country for milk, it’s far from the only state law imposing date label requirements on manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. Our research has shown that 41 states require date labels on at least certain food products, and 20 states then restrict or ban the sale or donation of foods after that date. This patchwork of state laws and regulations creates customer confusion, limits retailers’ ability to sell or donate safe, wholesome food, and causes unnecessary food waste. It’s a challenge that requires creative problem solving to address.”
FLPC is calling for the creation of a federal law that would standardize the date labels allowed on food products in order to clearly distinguish between quality and safety dates. This can reduce consumer confusion, simplify regulatory compliance, and cut food waste across the supply chain and in consumers’ homes. This law should also bar states from prohibiting sale or donation of food after its quality date. With the release of this film, FLPC aims to raise awareness about the consequences of confusing and non-science-based date labeling, and about the impact that a uniform labeling standard could have on reducing food waste. “We believe EXPIRED will be a powerful catalyst for change by offering a visual and visceral understanding of the problem, raising awareness about ways to combat it, and engaging key stakeholders in the issue,” adds Richman Cohen.
For more information and to view the film, please visit www.notreallyexpired.com.