Why Congress wants new labels to curb food waste

A proposed law would address confusing expiration date labels, in an attempt to reduce the food that is wasted annually.

Matt Peyton/AP/File
Hidden Valley® and Chef Tom Colicchio show attendees ways to think differently about produce and embrace less than perfect – almost expired, bruised or misshapen - vegetables and place them at the center of the table at the Taste Not Waste campaign launch in support of reducing food waste at Craft restaurant on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, in New York.

How much of the food wasted annually is a result of expiration date labels?

A lot, according to a recent Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s report. Up to 91 percent of Americans polled said that they have occasionally thrown away food after its “sell by” date, even though half of them didn't know the meaning of the label.

In response to the huge amount of food that goes to waste every year, Congressional lawmakers have introduced a bill that will standardize food labelling across the country, to eliminate the confusion that leads to wasted food.

The Food Date Labeling Act, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Conn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D) of Maine seeks to establish standardized food labelling method. The proposed system would have two labels that will tell the consumers when the food is at its peak quality and another date that indicates when the food is unsafe for consumption.

Each year billion pounds of  food goes to waste partly because consumers don’t know what to make of labels such as "best before," "use by," "best by," and others.

“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,” Representative Pingree said in a press release. “It’s time to settle that argument, end the confusion and stop throwing away perfectly good food.”

But why are labels so confusing?

When Americans lived on farms they could tell when food was fresh to be consumed. But as they moved away from the farms and relied on manufactured food they slowly lost the ability to tell how fresh the food was and relied on manufacturers to determine dates. US lawmakers have introduced 10 bills, between 1973 to 1975, to address food labeling and establish a nation-wide standardized system, but none of the measures passed. That left the labeling to individual states and manufacturing industries to decide, which eventually led to different labelling systems.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. In the United States alone, about 160 billion pounds of food, or nearly 40 percent of food produced goes to waste each year.

Not only is the food going to waste, but it also contributes to climate change. With less food wasted, there's less methane emissions from landfills. And with less food wasted, there's less food grown, shipped, manufactured, and sold - again reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says the US Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA,  95 percent of the 35 million tons of food waste Americans produced in 2013 ended up in landfills.

Efforts to reduce food waste have been gaining momentum in recent months. Last September the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the EPA unveiled a national campaign to reduce the food wasted each year. In partnership with private sectors the two organizations aim to cut, by half, the food wasted by the year 2030, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

In addition to government efforts, private companies are taking initiatives to reduce food waste. The Daily Table, a not-for-profit grocery store in located in Boston devised a solution to  curb the food that is thrown away by grocery store, farms and other manufactures. The store takes unwanted but healthy food products and sells them at cheaper prices to local residents, the Christian Science Monitor Reported.

If the proposed Congressional measure is approved, food manufactures would have two years to comply with the new labeling requirements.

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