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Checking expiration dates on food can be frustrating since there is no standard for expiration labels. With options like “Use by…,” “Expires on…,” and “Best by…” appearing on products, it can be difficult to surmise when exactly the food is no longer safe to eat.
This confusion creates a lot of waste. In fact, Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, notes recent studies show that nearly 90 percent of Americans are misinterpreting date labels and throwing food away prematurely, accounting for $162 billion worth of food wasted each year. The problem, she says, is that there is confusion about what the dates on expiration labels indicate.
“Many people believe the dates on food are telling them the foods are bad, spoiled and they will get sick if they eat it, and that’s just not true. The vast majority of dates are indicators of freshness or peak quality, not meant to indicate anything about the safety of the food,” Gunders says. “This confusion leads to a waste of resources, a waste of nutrition, and a waste of money.”
A new bill introduced in the U.S. Senate and House in May—The Food Date Labeling Act—is designed to help fix the problem, making labels clearer and decreasing the amount of food waste. The companion bills, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), would establish standard federal rules for the dates on food labels.
The proposed bill seeks to reduce the confusion among consumers by providing a “uniform phrase” for both the quality and safety dates. Gunders adds that the bill will also provide manufacturers with a single standard and limit compliance costs associated with having to comply with differing state laws—as currently 41 states have label guidelines and no two are the same.
Simply put, if passed, all food items would contain two labels: one that indicated when food is at its highest quality and another that shows when the food is no longer safe to eat. It’s believed that this simple change could save every American family an average of $1,500 a year.
Additionally, the bill would ensure that food is allowed to be sold or donated after its quality date, and educate consumers about the meaning of the new labels.
“Advocates for the bill will argue that food suppliers are being subjected to a multiplicity of different and potentially conflicting state laws that could drive up the costs of compliance,” says Douglas Bohn, a commercial litigation partner with the New York law firm Cullen and Dykman. “Since food manufacturers supply products that travel through state lines, state laws affecting such products are subject to the limitations of the Interstate Commerce Clause that places limitations on states in terms of passing individual laws that interfere with interstate commerce.”
Before the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016 is passed as law, food manufacturers should start determining how they will comply and how much it will cost them to comply with the new labeling laws.
“Food manufacturers should begin to assess whether their products contain GMO ingredients and determine if they would like to comply with the voluntary GMO labeling requirements should the bill become law,” says Bohn. “If the bill does not pass, food manufacturers should continue to identify states that have enacted GMO labeling laws and ensure that they take measures to comply with those state laws and avoid the assessment of fines.”