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Legislators Fight Food Waste Through Labeling Laws

By Jamie Siebrase  |  June 13, 2022

In a thrilling finale in February, the Los Angeles Rams scored a late touchdown to clinch their second Super Bowl title. For advocates dedicated to ending food waste, though, a new Hellmann’s ad that aired during the game was the main event. Football coach and former New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo brought humor to the company’s new #MakeTasteNotWaste campaign when he tackled food waste by literally tackling consumers who were tossing still-edible items.

“It’s interesting to see companies like Hellmann’s educating and engaging consumers,” says Emily Broad Leib, founder and faculty director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. “And it’s a great time to be thinking about ways to combat food waste in the home.”

One of the big legacies of the pandemic is that people are eating at home more, Leib says. According to a 2019 Food and Drug Administration report, “Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20% of food waste in the home.”

Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20% of food waste in the home. —U.S. Food and Drug Administration report, 2019

In a 2019 study in the journal Waste Management, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and Harvard Law School, including Leib, found that 84% of survey participants discarded food near the package date “at least occasionally” and 37% “always” or “usually” tossed food near that date. 

With the exception of baby food, product dating is completely voluntary. Phrases such as “use by,” “best before,” “sell by,” “enjoy by” and “expires on” are generally intended to communicate food quality, not food safety. The dates are really just a manufacturer’s best guess as to when a product will no longer be at peak freshness.

Despite this, date labels exert a powerful influence on consumers and food vendors alike. Most consumers don’t realize the date labels they see on packaged foods rarely correlate with safety. As a result, Americans waste an estimated 398,000 tons of food every year, according to ReFED, a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste.

Discarded food is a drain on our economy and natural resources. Findings from the California Assembly indicate that 4% of the nation’s total energy budget—plus 12% of U.S. land and 23% of freshwater consumed—grows food that goes uneaten.

Consumers lose money due to confusion over date labels. What’s more, date labeling creates a conundrum for businesses and food banks that won’t either donate or accept food past its expiration. 

California’s Date Labeling Law Shows Promise

Food is the single most prevalent item in California’s waste stream.

“We all experience the confusion of opening the refrigerator and seeing different date labels,” says former California Assemblyman David Chiu (D), currently serving as San Francisco’s city attorney.

When Chiu was working on what would become California’s food labeling law, AB 954, he noticed a problem. “Studies showed that if you looked at food products, there were at least two dozen different labels,” he says. Discarded food was contributing to 20% of the state’s methane emissions and posing economic challenges on top of environmental dilemmas.

Another motivator for Chiu to introduce his legislation was rising food insecurity, which affected 1 in 8 Californians, including 1 in 4 children, he says. Reducing food losses by just 15% can save the equivalent of enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans annually, according to the findings from the state Assembly. “There’s enough food that is thrown out to feed everyone who goes hungry, and that was such a remarkably startling statistic that I had to do something about it,” Chiu says.

Introduced in 2016, his bill was designed to reduce food waste by standardizing date labeling and educating consumers. The bill failed to get out of committee by one vote. Initially, food manufacturers opposed the bill, arguing that a federal solution was imminent. “We were skeptical,” says Chiu, who reintroduced his bill the following year. It passed and was enacted in 2017 with strong bipartisan support.

The legislation requires California’s Department of Food and Agriculture to promote the terms “best buy” and “use by.” It also encourages parties responsible for labeling food products—manufacturers, processors, retailers—to voluntarily use uniform terms for date labeling.

The bill sets aside nonstate funds from public and private sources via an account in the Department of Food and Agriculture Fund to teach consumers about the meaning of quality and safety dates.

The law also directs the Food and Agriculture Department to compile data on the bill’s outcomes.

East Coast Legislators Follow Suit

Across the country, Massachusetts Rep. Hannah Kane (R) introduced a similar date labeling bill in 2021. HB 2327 would decrease food waste statewide by standardizing the date labels.  

Massachusetts state law on date labels is among the nation’s strictest, according to a 2015 legal fact sheet issued by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Kane hopes to change that. Growing up in Maine with four grandparents who’d lived through the Great Depression, she “came to appreciate the time and energy it takes to create food,” she says.

“We’re using all of these natural resources to produce food, and then if we’re turning around and throwing it away,” Kane says. “We’re also throwing away the natural resources and time used to produce this food.”.

Despite the economic and environmental benefits associated with date label standardization, Kane’s bill hasn’t passed yet. “This is the third session I have filed this legislation, and it has a ton of advocacy behind it,” she says.

Like those in California, Massachusetts food manufacturers oppose the law, arguing for sweeping federal legislation on the topic since they produce food to distribute across state lines. “I understand their concern,” Kane says, admitting she’d be happy to see date labeling handled at the federal level. In the meantime, though, her bill would use “best if used by” and “expires on” to indicate quality and safety, respectively.

Kane has a strong interest in addressing food insecurity in her home state, and she isn’t putting all her eggs in one basket. She also introduced HB 1702, an act encouraging the donation of food to people in need. “This one would really extend civil liability protection to those who donate food—restaurants and businesses, for example,” Kane says. It also provides a tax credit to farmers who harvest and donate surplus food.

With food insecurity on the rise during the pandemic, Kane says there’s “heightened awareness” of the need for laws addressing food waste, as well as bipartisan support for solutions.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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