Bipartisan leadership has led Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA) to introduce the Food Date Labeling Act (H.R. 3981) to Congress on August 1st. The new bill aims to standardize date labels across the United States to tackle the complex system of sell by, use by, and best before dates.
“Food labeling is important for consumer education, but the current practice is confusing and outdated,” says Rep. Newhouse. While many consumers use date labels as a reference of food safety, most dates only indicate the peak quality of a product. This not only leads to confusion, but to millions of tons of food unnecessarily thrown out. “This bill takes a step toward reducing food waste by helping consumers understand the meaning behind date labels,” states Rep. Newhouse.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), date labelling emerged in the mid-20th century when Americans began to move from rural to urban communities. Away from their food source and increasingly reliant on grocery stores, people lost their ability to judge the freshness of food and began to demand standards and verification.
Although appeals for a nation-wide date labeling system emerged in the 1970s, none gained federal approval. Instead, the NRDC notes that states and manufacturers began to create their own date labeling standards—resulting in approximately 50 different date labeling terms across the United States. For example, Montana requires a sell by date within 12 days of pasteurization for milk while Pennsylvania requires a date within 17 days. And New Hampshire places a sell by date on cream—but not on milk while New York has no requirements for milk or dairy date labels.
“Most Americans don’t know the ‘best by’ date label on items at the grocery store aren’t based on safety or science. These completely arbitrary food date labels are confusing and costly for customers,” says Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced the companion bill to push for consideration in the Senate. “Our commonsense measure to establish a uniform national date labeling system would provide consumers with clarity—helping them save money on their grocery bills and preventing perfectly safe food from going to waste,” states Blumenthal.
Across the food chain, consumers in the United States generate more food waste than any other sector, including retail, transport or agriculture. This costs the average American family of four at least US$1,500 every year. And the ecological effect of food waste is also detrimental: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that food waste is the largest component of waste in American landfills, emitting greenhouse gases such as methane.
While consumers shoulder a majority of the responsibility, the Food Date Labeling Act provides an opportunity to reduce household food waste with a unified labelling system. In addition, lawmakers hope it could simplify food redistribution to hunger assistance programs. “Estimates indicate that around 90 percent of Americans prematurely throw out perfectly safe food, in part because of confusion about what date labels mean, meanwhile 38.4 million Americans are food insecure,” says Rep. Pingree. “This bill is an opportunity for the federal government to reduce confusion across the food supply chain and make sure no one is going hungry or inadvertently hurting our environment.”