GOOD NEWS
05/19/2016 05:18 pm ET

This Could Clarify WTF Food Expiration Dates Actually Mean

Bye-bye, “sell by,” “use by” and “best before.”
Burke/Triolo Productions via Getty Images

Here is a fresh idea.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would standardize expiration date labels like “sell by,” “expires on,” “best before” and “use by,” on food. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced The Food Date Labeling Act, which aims to combat customer confusion by establishing a national system for date labeling. The system would have just two uniformed labels -- one that tells consumers when food is at its peak quality and another that indicates what day food becomes unsafe to eat. Both labels will be clearly distinguishable from the other, so there will be no question as to whether food is still good to eat.

“One of the most common arguments people seem to have at home is about whether or not food should be thrown out just because the date on the label has passed. It's time to settle that argument, end the confusion and stop throwing away perfectly good food,” Pingree said in a press release.

Rep. Chellie Pingree at a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce legislation that would standardize
Tom Williams via Getty Images
Rep. Chellie Pingree at a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce legislation that would standardize food date labeling to help reduce food waste.

The time is ripe for this kind of legislation. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, confusion over expiration dates causes 90 percent of Americans to throw out perfectly good grub before it actually goes bad, which contributes more to food waste than grocery stores, restaurants or any other part of the food supply chain. Private homes in the U.S. waste $162 billion-worth food each year that used 25 percent of the nation’s water supply to produce. The wasted food also creates 33 million cars' worth of greenhouse gases and is “the single largest contributor to landfills today,” NRDC reports. This is all occurring while one in six Americans is food insecure.

It’s such a problem that last year, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a goal to cut the country's food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

Regulating food date labels is a good way to put a dent in that ambitious goal -- especially when they have been arbitrarily marked since the 1970s.

Crews unload trash at the Miramar Landfill in San Diego, California,
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Crews unload trash at the Miramar Landfill in San Diego, California,

When Americans moved away from farms during the 20th century -- and began buying food in stores -- they began to lose their ability to tell how fresh their food was. Americans had to rely on manufacturers and grocery stores to tell them how fresh food was and began demanding verification. This demand led to the introduction of over 10 congressional bills between 1973 and 1975 to establish requirements for food dates that illustrated how fresh food was. Yet, none of the legislative efforts gained enough momentum at the federal level, so none of the bills became laws and no uniform, nationwide system was established. The result has been food labeling chaos, in which state governments and industry actors respond to consumer interest for unspoiled food in whatever way they see fit, but with zero unifying strategy. For instance, the “use by” date on a carton of milk could have been created based on lab tests or consumer focus groups to pinpoint a flavor’s peak, but there’s really no way of telling what method was used.

The Guardian reports that canned food manufacturers set dates way before the food goes bad just so customers don’t become suspicious of how long canned food can last.

Many stores don't want to sell "ugly" vegetables, contributing to food waste.
Invision for Hidden Valley
Many stores don't want to sell "ugly" vegetables, contributing to food waste.

In fact, the only product that has a federal regulation in regards to the phrase “use by” is infant formula. But that date only indicates that the nutrients in formula decline by that date, not because it actually spoils.

“Use by” is a phrase that the bill specifically wants to tweak to “best if used by.” The updated phrase has been identified through surveys to be the one that is clearest to consumers.

It may be an addition of two little words, but Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, thinks it can have a huge impact on food waste.

“It doesn’t seem like a big change, but part of the challenge when labels are not standard is that consumers aren’t sure what to gather from that,” Leib told The Huffington Post in March. “But standardized labeling resonates with consumers.”

HuffPost

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