On Wednesday, April 18, the House Agriculture Committee approved a draft of the 2018 Farm Bill, a recurring, omnibus piece of legislation that covers issues across our food system, from agricultural subsidies to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Because the farm bill implicates crop insurance, conservation, trade, rural development, SNAP, and much more in one single piece of legislation, it is bound to be highly controversial. However, food waste, an incredibly bipartisan issue with significant potential to reduce pervasive economic and environmental wastefulness, has gone almost entirely overlooked in this draft. Although the draft bill proposes the creation of a Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison within the USDA, an important step in the right direction, there are many other low-cost, beneficial measures that could be taken to address the issue of food waste through the farm bill.
The United States sends about 40% of food to landfills, spending billions of dollars each year on this wasted food. The farm bill is the only piece of legislation that touches virtually every aspect of the food system, and as such is the perfect vehicle for enacting legislation to combat food waste. The 2018 Farm Bill will be the first farm bill since the USDA and EPA announced their goal to cut U.S. food waste in half by 2030, and we hoped to see Congress take concrete, decisive action towards meeting that goal in this farm bill.
Anticipating this landmark piece of legislation, FLPC published Opportunities to Reduce Food Waste in the 2018 Farm Bill in May 2017. This report identified areas in the 2018 Farm Bill where Congress could improve or enact policies to reduce the millions of tons of food wasted each year in America. The 17 recommendations set forth in the report aim to prevent the devastating effects of food waste on the environment, to save businesses and government money, and to help get wholesome food that would otherwise be wasted to those in need. Yet, the bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee includes only one of our recommendations: the creation of a Food Loss and Waste Liaison in the USDA.
Included in Title XI of the draft bill, the Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison’s job will be to “coordinate Federal programs to measure and reduce the incidence of food loss and waste.” More specifically, the Liaison’s duties include coordinating efforts between the USDA, the EPA, and the FDA, all of whom play vital but differing roles in food waste prevention; supporting and promoting federal programs to measure and reduce food waste and increase food recovery; serving as a resource for food waste and food recovery organizations; raising awareness of existing liability protections for food donation (which is, notably, another of FLPC’s recommendations); and making recommendations for expanding food recovery and waste reduction efforts.
It is an ambitious job description, but the creation of the Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison position within USDA is a concrete, laudable step by the federal government against food waste, and we applaud the inclusion of this new role in the draft bill. The inclusion of the Liaison position suggests that the federal government will continue to consider and prioritize food waste reduction in years to come.
However, other low-cost and easy-to-implement food waste solutions went overlooked in this proposed farm bill, even those that promise to have a high impact on waste reduction. The top low-cost solutions recommended by FLPC but absent in the 2018 proposed Farm Bill include standardizing date labels on food products in order to reduce consumer confusion, and strengthening the liability protections in the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act. Other top priority recommendations include funding for food recovery infrastructure and for states and localities to implement zero waste plans or organic waste diversion laws. Each of these are described briefly below.
Inconsistent and confusing date labels in the U.S. contribute to massive amounts of waste. Date labels on food generally are not based on safety but rather on manufacturer estimates of quality, and at this time there are no federal regulations to ensure consistency in date labels. Confusion about what date labels actually mean leads consumers and businesses to throw away millions of pounds of perfectly safe, wholesome food. FLPC recommends that Congress, in the farm bill, standardize date labels by offering manufacturers two phrases to choose from for expiration date labels: “BEST If Used By” to indicate quality and “USE By” for foods that may have a safety risk after the date. Standardizing expiration date labels in this manner is a low-cost solution to consumer food waste, and would build on a voluntary industry initiative launched last year utilizing the same two phrases.
Liability protection for donated foods
In addition to standardizing date labels, the 2018 Farm Bill should strengthen and clarify the liability protections afforded to food donors by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The Emerson Act provides civil and criminal liability protection to food donors and nonprofits that distribute food donations; by relieving donor concerns about potential liability, this can make them more likely to donate. However, many potential donors still say the reason they fail to donate is due to lack of knowledge about liability protections. Congress should task USDA with clarifying the scope of the Emerson Act, which is one of the roles of the proposed Food Loss and Waste Liaison in the draft farm bill. Further, the Emerson Act should be expanded to include further liability protections that match today’s food donation needs, including: reducing unnecessary labeling requirements for donated food; clarifying protection for past-date food donations; protecting donors that donate directly to final recipients; and providing protection when nonprofit recovery organizations charge the final recipient a low price.
Funding for food recovery infrastructure and for state and local waste diversion laws
Beyond these low-cost solutions, FLPC also recommends allocating further funding in the farm bill to initiatives that have been shown to be effective in reducing waste, creating jobs, and diverting wholesome food to those who need it. For example, the farm bill could support new food recovery infrastructure to help farmers and food recovery organizations prepare, process, and transport surplus produce to people in need. Another key recommendation is to provide funding to states and municipalities to implement zero waste plans and waste diversion laws. These plans are most effectively enacted at the state and local level, but can be costly to implement. Federal funding could support state and municipal planning and implementation of organic waste recycling plans, accelerating food waste reduction while building recycling infrastructure and creating jobs in food recovery and organics recycling. The most recent version of the 2018 Farm Bill does not include funding for such initiatives, missing an opportunity to further prioritize food waste.
The House Agriculture Committee has signaled commendable intent to tackle food waste with the creation of the Food Waste and Loss Reduction Liaison. However, if the U.S. hopes in earnest to meet food waste reduction goal by 2030, this step is not enough. We cannot wait for another Farm Bill to initiate meaningful food waste reduction efforts. Amidst heated controversy over some of the Farm Bill’s notoriously expensive provisions, low-cost policies to reduce food waste should be low hanging fruit. Those policies outlined above would go a long way towards ensuring more safe, wholesome food makes it to those in need and stays out of the landfill. Although this draft bill takes a step in the right direction, we hoped to see more, and will continue to work with members of Congress to understand the importance of food waste reduction and these key ways that the farm bill can make a difference in this fight.