Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Legislation introduced this week calls upon federal agencies to standardize those perplexing stamps.
When Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, first began working on the issue of food waste a few years ago, she found that she had to offer up an explanation. “People looked at me like they had no idea what that meant,” she says. “Now, people are realizing that it has very real impact.” One example: unstandardized food labels—those muddy, hard-to-parse “use by,” “sell by,” and “best by” notices. They exact a toll on consumers’ purse strings and the environment at large. But a new bill proposed this week hopes to curtail it.
On May 18, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree introduced the Food Date Labeling Act, which calls on the USDA and FDA to cooperate to standardize and regulate date labels, which are famously difficult for consumers to digest. In a recent national survey—which I wrote about on May 11—84 percent of respondents indicated that they at least occasionally tossed food that near the date printed on the label even when they weren’t sure whether the date related to quality or safety. With so many phrases used seemingly interchangeably, it can be hard to differentiate between a gentle reminder and an exhortation.
Tristram Stuart, the founder of the food waste advocacy group Feedback, draws this analogy: “Imagine every station had different words for petrol and diesel, and everyone was going around putting the wrong fuel in their pumps, and never knew quite what it was,” he says. “It’s obvious to everyone that we need to agree to common terminology.”
To rectify the confusion, the bill suggests streamlining the array of labels down to just two: “best if used by” would refer to quality, and “expires on” would be a safety precaution. The two phrases would make it easier to differentiate between items that pose a risk of food-borne illness and the nonperishable items—such as crackers or cereals—that are simply marked for optimal freshness.
These bills come on the heels of the nation’s first food waste summit in Washington, D.C., as well as two large rallies against food waste in the nation’s capital and in New York City. “This is a live issue,” says Stuart. “It’s kicking off in every direction.”
The bill’s proponents suggested that, by enacting a uniform federal system, the legislation would save money and conserve resources. “Items at the grocery store are stamped with a jumble of arbitrary food date labels that are not based on safety or science,” said Blumenthal in a statement. “This dizzying patchwork confuses consumers, results in food waste, and prevents good food from being donated to those who need it most.”
And, indeed, the U.S. simultaneously experiences a food waste crisis and a high volume of food insecurity. Around 63 million tons of food waste is diverted to American landfills each year, and discarded food costs the average American family $1,500 annually. Still, despite this surfeit of surplus food, more than 15 percent of American households struggle to obtain consistent access to nutritious meals. A number of states limit the way that food can be redistributed to soup kitchens or food pantries once the date on the label has passed. Leib says that when states hew fastidiously to arbitrary date labels, they’re “taking food out of the mouths of people who could be eating it.”
Dana Gunders, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told CivilEats standardized date labels are “low-hanging fruit that will clarify consumer understanding and help change the habit of tossing food when in doubt.” That habit has dramatic consequences: A report released in March by a consortium of non-profits, government agencies, and foundation leaders estimated that the lack of standardized date labels is directly responsible for 20 percent of consumer-generated food waste. Standardizing those labels, the authors wrote, could save up to 398,000 tons of wasted food per year.
Even so, the report raised the question of whether manufacturers had an incentive to standardize the labels; without a clear-cut benefit to the bottom line, the authors wondered, would it seem like a worthwhile change? But a handful of influential companies have since pledged to make it a priority. General Mills recently blogged in support of date label legislation, and representatives from Nestle and Campbells were in attendance at the bill’s press conference Wednesday to throw their weight behind the initiative. “There’s enough leadership on the industry side that it seems doable,” says Leib. Stuart acknowledges that there would be a small upfront cost to standardizing the labels, but says that the benefits far outweigh them. “The savings for everyone would be enormous,” he says, “not to speak of the environmental and moral costs that would be saved.”