Almost half of all food produced in the US is wasted: Can Congress help?

A proposal to standardize the 'sell by' and 'expired' food labels to avoid throwing out usable food, could gain broad, bipartisan support, say lawmakers.

Mel Evans/AP
A worker removes leaves as nectarines get sorted for packaging at Eastern ProPak Farmers Cooperative in Glassboro, N.J., in 2013. An effort to standardize labels on food products to prevent waste of usable food is gaining ground in Congress, advocates say.

Could a simple label change help reduce the 40 percent of food produced in the Untied States that is wasted every year?

That’s the hope for a group of lawmakers, consumer advocates, and industry groups currently working to clarify and standardize the "expired" and "best by" labels on many food products. Researchers in Europe and Britain have found that confusion about food labels causes approximately 20 percent of avoidable food waste each year.

In the United States, Americans throw out $165 billion in food annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, amounting to between $1,300 and $2,300 per family of four. What's more, food waste takes a toll on the environment, both as it rots in landfills, and as it heightens demands on the agricultural system.

"One of the most common arguments people seem to have at home is about whether or not food should be thrown out just because the date on the label has passed. It's time to settle that argument, end the confusion and stop throwing away perfectly good food," said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D) of Maine, who co-sponsored the Food Date Labeling Act with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Conn., in a statement.

Some people don't realize that there is no federal standard for the "use by" labels, says Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

"Many consumers believe that ... it’s a federal government label, and it’s actually a manufacturer label dealing with optimal freshness, or maybe optimal taste," says Ms. Greenberg, whose group is backing the legislation, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

"They assume that it’s done for purposes of safety and quality, and that isn’t the case," she says.

One of the few exceptions is infant formula, where the "use by" label is subject to federal regulation. In that case, the date stamp indicates when the formula’s nutrient content degrades, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

In Congress, the issue appears to be gaining momentum, if slowly. Representative Pingree’s bill received a positive reception during a House Agriculture Committee hearing last month, where she was called to testify by Rep. Mike Conaway (R) of Texas, the committee’s chair.

“This Congress isn’t particularly active. We just haven’t had a lot going on, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to move forward on an issue that really is bipartisan,” she told the Huffington Post.

At an event hosted by Bloomberg Government, Representative Conaway suggested that reducing food waste could be accomplished through other means, including public education efforts. "This is one of those great bipartisan, broad-support [issues] that nobody has to wait on government to fix," he said.

Greenberg of the Consumers League says that if it passes, the new labels could take a few years to make it to fridges across the country.

But even without legislation, the support of industry groups, including giants Campbell Soup Company and Nestlé, could mean that manufacturers will begin introducing best practices for food labeling on their own, she tells the Monitor.

Campbell has taken other steps to reduce food waste, including working with a New Jersey nonprofit to harvest excess peaches and turn them into peach salsa for a local food bank.

As many advocates for the proposal gathered at a two-day conference on food waste on Tuesday at Harvard Law School, in Cambridge, Mass., Greenberg says she’s hopeful that the effort to adopt a unified labeling standard could make its way through Congress.

“This really ought to be a bipartisan issue. No one wants to waste food, everyone knows that farmers and schools and hospitals and universities lose money when we throw food out,” she says. “This is really the perfect bipartisan issue.”

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