Congresswoman Chellie Pingree

Representing the 1st District of Maine

Introducing commonsense bill to standardize food date labeling

May 18, 2016
Press Release
The current dizzying array of date labels on food products—such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “expires on”— confuses consumers and contributes to 90 percent of Americans prematurely tossing perfectly safe food

date labeling infographic

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) today introduced commonsense bicameral legislation to standardize food date labeling. The current dizzying array of date labels on food products—such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “expires on”— confuses consumers and contributes to 90 percent of Americans prematurely tossing perfectly safe food. The lawmakers today introduced legislation to establish a uniform national date labeling system in order to reduce confusion, simplify regulatory compliance for companies, and reduce the waste of food and money. 

“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. Items at the grocery store are stamped with a jumble of arbitrary food date labels 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,” said Blumenthal.
 
“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,” Pingree said.
 
Blumenthal and Pingree announced the details of the legislation at a press conference today in Washington, DC, where they were joined by Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic; Steve Armstrong, Chief Food Law Counsel at Campbell Soup Company; Paul Bakus, President of Corporate Affairs at Nestlé; Carrie Calvert, Director of Tax and Commodity Policy at Feeding America; Pete Pearson, Director of Food Waste at the World Wildlife Fund; and Erik Olson, Director of the Health & Environment Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
 
The Food Date Labeling Act aims to reduce consumer confusion, simplify regulatory compliance for companies, and cut supply-chain and consumer waste of food and money. The bill establishes a uniform national system for date labeling that clearly distinguishes between foods that bear a label indicating peak quality from foods that bear a label indicating they may become unsafe to consume past the date. This bill would also ensure that food is allowed to be sold or donated after its quality date, and educate consumers about the meaning of new labels so that they can make better economic and safety decision. 
 
This bill is based on recommendations from comprehensive reports from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, and the Food Date Labeling Working Group. The bill requires the use of food date label terminology (i.e. “best if used by”) that has gone through consumer perception surveys and has been identified as language that is the most clear and accurate to consumers. It is also consistent with two recent studies, one of which was conducted by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the National Consumers League, and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, that both found that consumer education and standardizing food date labels are the most cost effective strategies to reduce food waste. A link to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic report is available here. 
 
The Food Date Labeling Act has received widespread support from food waste and food policy advocates and organizations:

Dr. Evelyn F. Crayton, President, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Academy members are actively engaged in efforts to improve individual and population nutritional health, and are in the unique position to influence consumer and institutional habits related to food safety and food waste. This legislation will standardize food date labeling for quality and safety across products and educate the public on the new labeling system, which will ease confusion by consumers and institutions. This is a necessary step as our country addresses food waste across the entire food supply.”

Steve Armstrong, Chief Food Law Counsel, Campbell Soup Company: “We applaud Senator Blumenthal and Representative Pingree for their leadership in crafting a bill that addresses a source of consumer confusion – trying to understand ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ code dating on food packages. Importantly, it would make it easier for companies to donate products to organizations such as food banks, which could help cut down on food waste while helping those in need.”

Consumer Federation of America: “This legislation will not only reduce food waste but also help consumers to understand the safety risks associated with certain foods, and better protect themselves and their families. The current patchwork system of state laws with varying standards has created considerable confusion and left many consumers wondering when date labels really matter, and whether they should pay attention to them at all.”

Diana Aviv, CEO, Feeding America: “Feeding America commends Senator Blumenthal and Representative Pingree for introducing legislation on standardizing date labels for food. We know that consumer confusion over date labels leads to a significant amount of food waste, and support legislation that provides federal standards on date labels. With 46 million Americans turning to the Feeding America food bank network for food assistance each year, the people we serve cannot afford to waste nutritious food because of confusion over what “use by” “consume by” or “best by” mean.  In addition, the legislation allows food to be donated past the quality date, which would mean increased donations to food banks and additional meals to people in need in the 20 states that restrict the donation of excess post-date food.”

Tom Colicchio, Chef, Advocate, and Co-Founder, Food Policy Action: “Having no uniform date labels on food hurts our economy. It burdens businesses with inconsistent regulations and causes tremendous consumer confusion about food safety that results in perfectly good food ending up in the trash. I applaud Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing common sense legislation to standardize sell-by date labels. These simple changes will make drastic improvements and help strengthen America’s food system.”

Regina Northouse, Executive Director, Food Recovery Network: “Forty percent of all food produced in America is wasted, while at the same time, one in six of our neighbors is unsure where her next meal will come from. Food is wasted on farms, throughout the supply chain, by consumers and by institutions. Since 2011, Food Recovery Network's student leaders have taken over 1.3 million pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to waste from college and university campuses and donated it to community members in need. In addition to providing these million meals to people and not to landfills, students have raised the profile of food waste and hunger as major issues with practical solutions. At a grassroots level, FRN's work has educated members of more than 200 communities about food recovery and best ways to manage food surplus.”

Emily Broad Leib, Director, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic: “Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost effective ways that we can reduce the 40% of food that goes to waste each year in the United States, so I am thrilled to see Senator Blumenthal and Representative Pingree introduce legislation to help reduce food waste, support the environment, and address hunger. The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic just released data from a national survey that illustrates how consumer confusion over date labels impacts the amount of food waste nationally – leading 84% of consumers to throw food away when the date passes. When consumers misinterpret these indicators of quality as indicators of safety, the amount of food that is discarded greatly increases. The proposed legislation is a great step forward and will benefit many American families while preserving our environment.”

Sally Greenberg, Executive Director, National Consumer League: “This sensible legislation couldn’t come at a better time. America's food waste – throwing out 25 percent of the food we buy – has environmental, financial, and moral consequences, and the food waste epidemic is at a tipping point. Our own new research confirms our theories that consumer confusion over date labeling--and the widespread false assumption that the federal government is regulating labels--is vastly contributing to wasteful behavior. Without uniformity in the system, consumers are tossing out millions of pounds of perfectly healthy and safe food because a mishmash of labeling practices are telling them it's the right thing to do. This badly needed legislation will begin to address the food waste problem at the policy level, and to help continue the conversation to make the issue gain traction with consumers.”

The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger: “The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, the only national foundation dedicated solely to understanding the complexities and consequences of senior hunger and undernutrition and to working to create innovative approaches and programs to reduce it, strongly supports the “Food Date Labeling Act of 2016.” We commend Representative Pingree and Senator Blumenthal for their leadership in crafting this important measure and we urge the Congress to work together in a bipartisan and bicameral manner to see it enacted before the end of the 114th Congress.”

Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: “Contrary to popular belief, expiration date labels often don't indicate whether food is still safe to eat. As a result, we are tossing massive amounts of perfectly good food in the trash-along with all of the water, climate pollution, and money it took to get it to our fridge. This bill will help clarify the true meaning of the dates on food labels, giving consumers a better sense of food's freshness, so we can keep more on our plates and out of the landfill.”

Paul Grimwood, Chairman and CEO, Nestlé USA: “We fully support establishing federal standards to help food companies like Nestlé more clearly communicate with consumers and avoid confusion that leads to unnecessary food waste. Nestlé has already committed to achieve zero waste to landfill in 100% of our production facilities by 2020 and we're well on our way to achieving that goal. Standardizing date labeling is a practical and commonsense approach to giving consumers the information they need to help extend this effort all the way to their own kitchens.”

John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer, United Technologies Corp, and co-author of Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change: “The carbon footprint of food waste measured as a country would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. That’s why we should consider many strategies and programs to help consumers waste less food.”

Pete Pearson, Director of Food Waste, World Wildlife Fund: “When we waste food, we waste the land, water, and energy used to produce it. We need to conserve these resources so future generations inherit a planet where food production and consumption exist in balance with nature. The Food Date Labeling Act will ensure more food reaches people who need it, heighten consumer awareness on food waste, and clarify confusing expiration dates so that we waste less and save more. This is a win-win for consumers and the environment.”