Last week, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 (H.R. 3981), federal legislation to standardize date labels on food products. The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) enthusiastically supports this legislation, which will reduce consumer confusion and food waste.
40% of food in the U.S. goes to waste each year, and confusion over date labels is a significant contributor to food waste. Currently, date labels are not regulated at the federal level. In the absence of federal legislation, manufacturers use a dizzying variety of date labeling phrases, most of which are meant to communicate when food will be at its peak quantity. However, many consumers misinterpret these date labels to be indicators of food safety, leading them to throw out food prematurely. Moreover, states have developed their own date labeling requirements, resulting in a patchwork system of inconsistent state laws.
FLPC has championed federal legislation to standardize date labels and alleviate this confusion since 2013 when we released our report, The Dating Game, in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). According to ReFED, standardizing date labels is the most cost effective solution to food waste.
Legislation to standardize date labels was first introduced in 2016, when Representative Pingree and Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016. Date label standardization was also proposed in the Food Recovery Act of 2017. The Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 builds on these previous legislative efforts with changes that make the standards more flexible for food labelers.
Under the new legislation, manufacturers or retailers may choose whether or not to use date labels on food products. However, if they choose to use a date label, they must use one of two prescribed phrases. This gives industry the freedom to decide whether or not to use date labels on their products but still ensures that labeling language is consistent on food products across the country. If a labeler wishes to indicate a food’s peak quality, the labeler must use the phrase “Best if Used By.” If a labeler wishes to communicate when a food should be discarded for safety, the labeler must use the phrase “Use By.” These phrases are consistent with voluntary date labeling initiatives developed in recent years (discussed below), and a national survey shows that most consumers understand these phrases to convey quality and safety.
This legislation will address the current patchwork system of state-level date labeling laws by pre-empting any state labeling regulations that require alternative date labeling language. The legislation also bars any state-level prohibitions on the donation of past date food based on a quality date. This will help ensure that wholesome food can be donated to food rescue organizations. Finally, the legislation requires the creation of a national consumer education campaign to inform consumers about the meaning of the new standard labeling language.
In recent years, federal agencies and industry leaders have taken important steps towards standard date labeling language. On May 23rd of this year, the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, Frank Yiannas, penned an open letter to the food industry encouraging the adoption of the standard term “Best if Used by” for quality dates on food products. This FDA recommendation mirrors USDA’s 2016 revised guidance, which similarly encourages the use of the phrase “Best if Used by” to indicate quality. Two years ago, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) launched the Product Code Dating Initiative, a voluntary call to the industry to adopt standardized quality and discard date phrases. Federal legislation will bolster the success of these existing initiatives and allow for complete uniformity nationwide.
With so much recent momentum in support of standardized date labels, the time is now to pass legislation to establish a uniform national system. FLPC is pleased to support this bill, which will alleviate confusion over date labels and ensure that more safe, wholesome food gets eaten.