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Here’s How Congress Plans To Save Food From The Trash

Originally published on June 28, 2016 by Casey Williams for Huffington Post.

In Congress these days, it’s all about that waste. 

Legislation introduced Wednesday in the Senate aims to dramatically reduce the amount of food being wasted in the U.S. While it’s not the first bill to tackle the issue, it’s one of the broadest and beefiest.

The Food Recovery Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), includes measures to educate consumers about food waste, nudge school cafeterias to buy banged-up fruits and vegetables and simplify expiration dates.

The bill represents a “broad and effective way to prevent waste,” Blumenthal told The Huffington Post. If passed, the law would help “save money, save food for people who are food insecure” and avoid a host of environmental damages, he added. 

The Senate bill is a companion to legislation Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced in the House of Representatives in December. And it comes just about a month after Blumenthal and Pingree rolled out legislation that seeks to create a new, uniform system for food date labels. 

Up to 40 percent of the nation’s food goes uneaten, yet millions of Americans aren’t able to put healthy meals on their tables. The recent stream of food waste legislation reflects a growing desire among individuals, businesses and legislators to rein in the country’s waste problem, said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. 

“Food waste is this invisible problem,” she told HuffPost. “I think it’s the kind of thing where once people start talking about it and realize how much food they’re wasting and how much food is wasted nationally, it’s like, ‘This is crazy, we have to do something about it.’”

“I feel like now we’ve reached this tipping point where it’s in the public consciousness,” she added.  

There’s a lot packed into the new bill, but here are some of the highlights.

The proposed legislation would fund campaigns to educate consumers about food waste, as well as promote efforts to teach kids in schools about waste. It would also strengthen good Samaritan laws, which shield businesses that donate old food from lawsuits if recipients of their food get sick, and establish an Office of Food Recovery to oversee the country’s efforts to reduce food waste. 

One of the bill’s more zeitgeisty provisions would encourage schools to buy fruits and veggies that don’t meet high aesthetic standards — so-called “ugly” produce — for their cafeterias. Stocking imperfect fruits and veggies is something anti-waste advocates have been calling on large food retailers, including Walmart, to do as well. 

In addition, the bill includes a provision to standardize date labels on food. The Food Date Labeling Act, introduced in May, also calls for a uniform date labeling system. Both pieces of legislation, if passed, would replace the current confusing and largely unregulated labeling system with just two labels: one indicating a food’s quality (“best if used by”) and one indicating when a food will become unsafe to eat (“expires on”). 

That small change could put a huge dent in the country’s waste problem, according to Blumenthal.

“We will see a drastic change in consumer practice as more people understand that the sell by date has no relevance to food quality or safety and that we can feed more people who now go hungry,” he said.

The Senate bill differs in a few ways from its counterpart in the House, which is currently in committee. The earlier bill included tax incentives for donating uneaten food and several other anti-waste measures. The new Senate bill doesn’t include these provisions because most of them were tucked into the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in December. 

The Food Recovery Act also doesn’t include much regulation. With the exception of a measure requiring food distributors with government contracts to donate leftover food to food pantries, the bill doesn’t force businesses to take steps to reduce waste.  

“None of it’s really restricting or saying you have a duty to do certain things,” Broad Leib said. “For the most part, it’s not creating restrictions, and I do think it at some point it might be nice to think about ways to have requirements on companies to make better decisions about food waste.”

While there appears to be bipartisan support for measures to reduce food waste, there’s likely to be opposition to at least some aspects of the bill, according to Broad Leib.

“There’s so much in here that there might be people against this little provision or that little provision,” she said. “I would surprised if this whole thing passed in its entirety.” 

I think we have a moment right now with this and with the date labeling act,” she added. “It feels like there’s a real opportunity to make progress and I’m hopeful that we won’t miss this opportunity.”

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