The food labeling system in the United States is a complete mess. Foods can be labeled “healthy” regardless of how much sugar they contain. Foods can be labeled “Non-GMO” even when they don’t have genes, making the existence of a genetically-modified version impossible.
But beyond encouraging misinformation in our food system and potentially leading consumers to make ill-informed nutritional decisions, labels can also be terrible for the environment and food security.
Take, for instance, the existence of omnipresent expiration labels. Most consumers assume that these labels are guidelines for the date after which it’s unwise, or potentially unsafe, to eat that particular food product. But expiration labels basically mean nothing. There are no federal standards for expiration dates, except for baby formula, and best-by or sell-by date have no basis in science — instead, they’re a manufacturer’s best guess for when the food is likely to be freshest, or at peak quality. Some food products could easily last a year or a year and a half past their “sell by” date.
A lot of American consumers don’t know that, however, which leads to confusion over expiration labels and, in turn, causes Americans to throw out a lot of perfectly good food. A recent study from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and the National Consumers League, which surveyed over 1,000 American consumers, found that a third of consumers believe that expiration labels are federally regulated. The study also found that more than than a third of consumers consistently throw away food that is close to or past its labeled expiration date, and 84 percent do it at least occasionally. For a country that wastes 40 percent of the food produced each year — with most of that waste happening at the consumer level — that’s a huge problem, not only because it drives continued food insecurity, but because it means that perfectly good food products end up in landfills, where they decompose to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Now, two members of Congress have introduced legislation aimed at combating the issue of misleading expiration dates at the federal level. Dubbed the Food Date Labeling Act, the legislation — introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) — would create a national standard for expiration dates, requiring labels to clearly distinguish between foods that reach their peak freshness by a particular date, and foods that are unsafe to eat after a certain date. The bill would also make sure that food can be donated even if it has passed its peak freshness.
“Before taking a swig of milk, many Americans glance quickly at the date label and toss it away, without realizing that it still may be perfectly safe to consume,” Blumenthal said in a press statement. “Items at the grocery store are stamped with a jumble of arbitrary food date labels that that are not based on safety or science. This dizzying patchwork confuses consumers, results in food waste, and prevents good food from being donated to those who need it most. By establishing a uniform national date labeling system, this commonsense legislation will provide consumers with clarity that will help them save money on their grocery bills and prevent perfectly safe food from going to waste.”
Dealing with misleading expiration labels has long been a priority for Rep. Pingree, who introduced a comprehensive food waste bill — which included a portion about expiration labels — late last year. A provision within that bill that gave tax breaks to farms and businesses that donate unused produce passed as part of a tax extender bill late last year. But Pingree said that her ultimate goal is to take the bill and break it into pieces, working with colleagues to get individual provisions enacted. The expiration labeling provision, she said, would fall under that strategy.
“[Expiration labels are] one of those things that over time you get used to having on anything you buy, but most people don’t realize there is no corresponding science to what the date is,” Pingree said in an interview with ThinkProgress in December.