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Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic Calls on Congress to Standardize Food Date Labels

Clarifying confusing food date labels will save Americans money, strengthen the food safety net,  and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Nearly all Americans—90%—report that they throw away food after its “sell by” or “use by” date, believing that consuming it after the date will make them sick. However, most food is wholesome, edible, and safe long past the date on the label, with very few exceptions. In conjunction with the recently introduced Food Date Labeling Act, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) launched a campaign calling on Congress to standardize and clarify our food date labels. 

On December 7, Representatives Chellie Pingree and Dan Newhouse and Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced the Food Date Labeling Act, which would profoundly improve the confusing date labeling system in the US.  Currently, food date labels are not related to safety in almost all cases (the few exceptions include deli meats and unpasteurized dairy products). Instead, nearly all date labels indicate a date by which food manufacturers deem their product will retain its best taste. Further, date labeling guidelines differ from state to state in the absence of a nationally standardized system, in some cases requiring us to throw away nutritious, edible food. This food waste exacerbates climate change, wastes consumers’ money, and prevents suppliers from donating their products to food banks and food recovery organizations, where food can make it to the tables of those in need.

FLPC’s Not Really Expired campaign urges Congress to pass th​​e Food Date Labeling Act to establish uniform, nationwide date label standards to reduce food waste, promote food donation, decrease our emissions, and save us money. Specifically, the legislation would:

  1. Develop a standardized dual date labeling scheme that only allows for either a quality-based or a safety-based date label on each food product:
    -“BEST If Used By” is the quality-based date to tell consumers when to use food for maximum freshness and best taste;
    -“USE By” is the safety-based date to tell consumers when to use food, like deli meat and other prepared foods, that might pose a health risk if consumed after the date.
  1. Expressly permit the sale or donation of past quality-based date labeled food.

  2. Launch a government agency-led, nationwide, consumer education campaign in partnership with private industry on the new date labeling scheme. 

“Congress can reduce food waste, support immediate relief for people experiencing food insecurity, and limit our emissions through legislation that clarifies our confusing food date labels,” said Emily Broad Leib, Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “Congressional action is imperative as our country struggles with high rates of food insecurity and faces devastation dictated by climate change. We trust Congress to lead on these issues today and help deter them tomorrow.”

The Food Date Labeling Act was introduced on the heels of The Food Donation Improvement Act of 2021, which would also help curb food waste by expanding and clarifying protections in the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to better support food donation efforts. 

Americans throw away roughly 30% of food in their homes every year, costing approximately $370 annually per person – or about $1,500 for a family of four. According to ReFed’s Insights Engine, standardizing date labels could generate a national annual net financial benefit of over $2.4 billion. Yet, one in eight Americans—and one in six of our children—will experience food insecurity in 2021.The food we toss is trucked to our landfills, taking up more space than any other material by volume, where it rots and generates more than 32.6 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

To learn more about how standardizing food date labels can address these major problems, visit notreallyexpired.com.

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