On May 9, 2023, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), along with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), reintroduced the Food Date Labeling Act. 2022 saw the largest annual food price jumpin 40 years, and the United States continues to struggle with food insecurity. It is time for Congress to find new ways to help Americans get more out of their food dollars and stop wasting food that is perfectly safe to eat. FLPC applauds these Congressmembers in leading the charge to address consumer food waste associated with date labels.
The Food Date Labeling Act (FDLA) would eliminate the myriad date label phrases currently seen on supermarket and grocery store shelves, giving manufacturers the option of using one of two possible date labels: a discard date (indicated by the phrase “USE By”) or a quality date (indicated by the phrase “Best If Used By”). The discard date indicates the food product’s shelf-life, meaning after that date passes, the manufacturer recommends the product no longer be consumed for safety purposes. Alternatively, the quality date indicates the food product might decline in quality after the date passes, but the product will still be safe to consume. The FDLA still leaves it optional for manufacturers on whether to include a date label, but by standardizing which phrases can be used, the FDLA will mitigate consumer confusion about what date labels mean.
Right now, the federal government does not regulate date labels except for infant formula. This has led to a patchwork of date label laws and regulations across the states, ultimately giving manufacturers broad discretion over how they label their food. Though a number of manufacturers have voluntarily implemented a dual-date labeling scheme similar to the one proposed by the FDLA, there are still over 50 date label phrases on supermarket shelves today.
The current existing date labeling system in the United States is a major driver of consumer food waste, which accounts for nearly half of all food waste in the country. In fact, the average American spends more money every year on food that they throw away than they spend on a whole year’s worth of gas for their car. This is at least partially because consumers mistakenly assume date labels indicate safety, rather than quality, and subsequently throw away food with past dates.
The proposed Act lays the groundwork for eliminating this consumer confusion and its associated food waste by pairing the updated date labeling scheme with a date label education campaign led by the USDA and FDA. By simplifying food product date labels, consumers will have an easier time understanding how best to evaluate their food for safety and will eat (rather than throw away) more of the food they purchase.
Standardizing date labels will also bring about significant benefits for the environment. ReFED, a national non-profit leading data-driven food waste solutions, estimates that standardizing date labels would divert nearly 800,000 tons of food from landfill every year. This would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the air when food is left to rot in landfill or burnt in incinerators. Beyond its greenhouse gas reduction potential, standardizing date labels could also save around 271 billion gallons of water per year.
Given its social and climate benefits, the Food Date Labeling Act is a common-sense piece of legislation, and the time is ripe for passing it in 2023. After years of partisan in-fighting in Congress, there are signs that Congress will come together in 2023 to pass a bi-partisan Farm Bill, an omnibus piece of legislation passed every 5-7 years overseeing a broad range of agriculture and food policy issues. FLPC, along with its Zero Food Waste Coalition partners, see addressing food waste as a key rallying point for bi-partisan agreement in the Farm Bill. Passing the Food Date Labeling Act to address consumer food waste would be an excellent place to start.
FLPC is thrilled to support the Food Date Labeling Act and is looking forward to watching its progress with the current Congress.
Food Law & Policy, Commentary
A grounding legal education in the Food Law and Policy Clinic
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