Massachusetts and New Jersey are considering measures to clear up the food label confusion, following a California law that went into effect earlier this year. Several other states also are looking at labeling bills, as anti-food waste groups advocate for clearer signs to indicate when food is okay to eat, even if it’s not the freshest.
A bill that would establish federal standards for the labels, first introduced in 2016, has gone nowhere in Congress. Meanwhile, 43 states have their own rules, but they vary widely. Most limit labeling requirements to certain items, such as milk or shellfish. Some states prohibit the sale of past-date foods, and about half restrict donations of them. And the seven states without any laws leave it up to manufacturers.
The result: confusion for retailers and consumers, who throw out tons of food that is perfectly safe to eat.
Manufacturers largely include the labels to let retailers know when they should pull the product from their shelves, said Katy Franklin, operations manager at ReFED, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that focuses on reducing food waste.
“You might think this product isn’t safe after the date, but what it really means is that this food is not at peak quality after this date,” Franklin said.
More than a third of the food in the United States goes to waste — about 400 pounds a year per American. Food is the largest category of waste in landfills, where it generates methane that contributes to global warming. Discarding past-date food is a huge cost for retailers.
Food date labeling began in the 1970s, when consumers began to see an increase in packaged foods, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s seminal study, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.”
But in the absence of clear definitions and standards, food manufacturers tagged foods with whatever label they wanted, leading to confusion that persists today.
Advocates want the labels to be standardized and clearly defined, even if manufacturers continue to set the dates.
Federal legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and a companion bill by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, both Democrats, would have established a national system limited to one quality date indicator (“best if used by”) and one safety date indicator (“expires on”). Food manufacturers would have been allowed to forgo the quality date indicator, but the safety date indicator would have been mandatory for a small group of perishable foods.
The bill also would have eliminated state laws barring the sale or donation of food past the quality date, though states would have been allowed to prohibit the past-date sale or donation of expired foods.