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Webinar Review: “The Impact of Date Labels on Food Waste, Food Recovery and Donation”

This post was written by Kerensa Gimre with support from Regina Paparo and Ata Nalbantoglu, FLPC clinical students.


Highlights

  • Date labels should utilize that dual date label scheme that clearly distinguishes between quality-based and safety-based labels
  • Consumer and business education about the meaning of date labels is critical to reducing food waste and encouraging food donation.
  • Recent momentum on climate change and sustainability offers an opportunity to engage policymakers on food waste, including date labels.

The Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), in partnership with The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) and Food Systems for the Future, virtually convened policymakers on March 25 to discuss the role of date labels in impacting food waste, food recovery, and donation. The meeting was part of a series of webinars organized under the Global Food Donation Policy Atlas project, a joint partnership between FLPC and GFN, with support from the Walmart Foundation. Featuring select government officials and food donation experts from around the world, the webinar explored concerns, best practices, and policy considerations to encourage the adoption of standardized date labeling to limit food waste and promote food recovery and donation.

Date labels affixed to food products are a significant driver of food waste and an obstacle to food donation. In many countries, date labeling regulations do not distinguish between quality-based and safety-based labels, contributing to confusion over whether food can be safely distributed or consumed after the date. It is not clear to food businesses, food donors, consumers, and regulators whether the date label accompanied by language such as “sell by,” “use by,” “expires on,” or “best before” relates to freshness or to food safety. The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas has found that questions and confusion regarding date labels are critical legal and policy issues impacting the donation and utilization of safe, surplus food.

Moderated by Ertharin Cousin, CEO and Founder of Food Systems for the Future, the webinar explored key issues regarding date labeling laws and policies. Panelists discussed the importance of regulation and the necessity of educating consumers on date labels to reduce food waste and encourage the donation of safe, surplus food. Tom Heilandt, Secretary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), elaborated the date labeling standards provided under the Codex’s General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods. Revised in 2018, the Codex Standards are international voluntary, non-binding standards—the Labeling Standard provides for a dual date labeling scheme in which all products would be labeled with only a quality-based date label or a safety-based date label. However, in many countries, existing labeling policies do not align with this voluntary, non-binding standard.

Panelists also described country date labeling policies, including challenges and best practices for countries considering a dual-date labeling scheme. Pernille Lundquist Madsen, the Deputy Head of the Chemistry and Food Quality Division at the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and Denmark’s representative on the Codex Committee on Food Labelling, noted that Denmark, like the rest of the European Union, adopted a dual date labeling scheme, that allows food to bear only one of two date labels – a safety-based “use by” date label, or a quality-based “best before” date label. Estelle Herszenhorn, Special Advisor for Food at the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in the United Kingdom (U.K.), noted that to reduce food waste and encourage redistribution of surplus food, WRAP has developed best practice guidelines for food date labeling and storage advice and guidance on labeling and redistribution of food – to promote redistribution of food near to or beyond the best before dates. She also highlighted that as part of the U.K. commitment to reducing food waste, they have enshrined the food waste hierarchy into law.  

Representative Chellie Pingree, U.S. Representative for Maine’s 1st Congressional District, discussed efforts to standardize date labels in the U.S. Currently, each state decides whether or how to regulate date label language, leading to patchwork regulations and consumer confusion. Moreover, both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have overlapping authority over food safety. Proposed legislation introduced by Rep. Pingree would adopt a dual date labeling scheme, requiring food to bear only a “Best If Used By” date for quality or a “Use By” date for foods that increase in safety risk past the date.

Global data show that consumers mistakenly interpret date labels as indicators of safety rather than quality. This lack of clarity and the ensuing confusion about date labels further stifles food donations. Panelists underscored the need for comprehensive education campaigns targeted at food donors, consumers, and health officials to promote awareness about the meaning of date labels. Estelle Herszenhorn discussed the U.K.’s efforts to promote consumer awareness, mainly through the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign, which provides education on date labels and other methods of minimizing food waste in the home. Pernille Lundquist Madsen discussed Denmark’s TooGoodToGo, an innovative application that raises consumer awareness about date labels and connects consumers with unsold, surplus food. Representative Pingree highlighted the USDA’s FoodKeeper App that helps consumers understand food and beverage storage to maximize freshness and reduce food waste.

Also, in many countries, it is unclear for food banks and food recovery organizations whether it is safe to distribute past-date food. Many food donors interpret date labels affixed to food products as indicators of safety and will, therefore, throw away food once the date has passed; intermediaries may also refuse to accept donated food after this date, thinking that the food product is unfit for human consumption. Estelle Herszenhorn stressed the importance of governments making it clear what food can be sold and donated after the quality-based date label to counter these concerns, as the UK has done. Pernille Lundquist Madsen noted that since 2014, Denmark allows the sale or donation of food after the “best before” date.

Finally, the policymakers highlighted that recent public interest in climate change and sustainability provides an opportunity to engage consumers in a conversation on food waste, date labels, and how they intersect with sustainability. These remarks demonstrated that meaningful date labeling laws have the potential to reduce food waste and support greater food donation. A strong date labeling policy clearly differentiates between quality-based and safety-based labels and provides explicit permission to donate food past a quality-based date. A detailed companion issue brief on best practices regarding date labeling standards to reduce food waste is forthcoming. FLPC and GFN welcome the continuation of a critical and open conversation. FLPC will resume the sessions in the Fall with a focus on food safety for donations and taxes. FLPC invites government officials and policymakers from international and multilateral organizations to reach out for further information at flpc@law.harvard.edu.

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