'Use-by' labels add to waste

Colleen Kottke
Now Media Group


Experts testifiying before the House Agriculture Committee say that that 'sell-by' and 'use-by' labels on food products are confusing and inconsistent and need to be standardized to help educate consumers in reducing food waste.

Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, opened the hearing by saying that an estimated 40 percent of food grown in the U.S. is wasted every year, ending up in trash cans and landfills while millions of Americans are food insecure.

'Considering that millions of Americans struggle to put food on the table every day, tackling food waste is, and should be, a non-partisan issue that will be most successful by engaging everyone involved, from field to table,' Conaway said. 'It will take the collaboration of all stakeholders to be successful in minimizing food waste.'

Legislation targets labels

Witness Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is a co-author of a bill designed to standardize date labeling on food packages — a measure which she says is filled with common sense and is cost-effective. Her bill would create two labels: one that says 'expires on' for food that is really unsafe to eat after a certain date, and another that says 'best if used by' for everything else.

The bill would also make sure that no states or local health departments could ban the donation of 'perfectly good food' just because the date on the label has passed, she said.

Up to 86 percent of consumers at least occasionally discard prematurely because they misinterpret dates to mean food is unsafe to eat. This confusion extends to businesses who also wind up discarding perfectly edible food.

'Refining and and standardizing the system of date labeling on food offers one of the most concrete steps to quickly reduce the amount of edible food being thrown out both in households and businesses' Pingree said.

Pingree noted that over 40 states require date labels on certain food products. However, the labels fail to distinguish whether label expiration dates refer to quality or safety.

In addition, more than 20 states restrict or ban the sale or donation of food after the date, when for the most part the food is perfectly safe to eat, she said.

'It's unconscionable that so much food ends up in landfills,' Pingree said. 'This is just one way we can make sure food gets to those who need it most.'

Congressman Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, said consumers already face a perplexing amount of labels on packages including information on GMOs, gluten, calories, etc.

Wasteful nation

Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist, Food & Agriculture Program, National Resources Defense Council and author of the widely-quoted report on food waste, Wasted: How America is Losing, said that per capita, America wastes more than 1,250 calories every day and 35 pounds of food every month.

'As a country, this amounts to up to $218 billion or 1.3 percent of the GDP, spent each year on wasted food,' Gunders said. 'For a family of four, this means at least $1,500 spent annually on food that they never eat.'

Beyond money, Gunders testified that Americans are missing an opportunity to provide sustenance and nutrition: just one-third of the country's wasted food could provide the caloric equivalent of the entire diets for the 48 million food insecure Americans, if only it could be distributed properly.

Cost and liability are two concerns that food manufacturers and retailers face when deliberating whether or not to donate excess food to pantries or food banks, said Emily Broad Lieb, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Liability fears

'Many food businesses are unsure whether past-date food is safe, whether its donation is lawful and whether they will receive liability protection,' Lieb said. 'Further, food bank recipients, like other consumers, are confused about date labels and hesitant to consume part-date foods.'

While federal law provides liability protection for food donations, Lieb says most citizens are unaware of the laws.

'Many food manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers cite fear of liability as a primary deterrent to donating food. In fact, a 2014 survey found that 67 percent of food manufacturers and 54 percent of wholesalers cite liability as one of the main barriers to food donation,' Lieb said. 'Even if they know that will be protected from liability, businesses are fearful of doing something that may run afoul of their health inspectors.'

Standard date labels could make clear which foods could be safely donated and consumed after the date and which cannot, reducing waste at all levels of the supply chain, Lieb said.

Cutting waste

Last year the USDA and EPA announced a waste goal reduction: reduce food waste 50 percent by the 2030. Already companies and businesses across the nation already stepping up to reach that goal.

Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, testified on behalf of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), an initiative of 30 companies formed in 2011 by GMA, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association.

Member companies work across sectors to identify sources of food waste, increase the amount of food sent to food banks and decrease what is sent to landfills.

'Everyone has a role to play in reducing food waste,' Stasz said. 'In 2014, our companies recycled nearly 94 percent of the food waste generated from manufacturing and in 2015 donated over 800 million pounds of food to food banks.'

Other organizations and businesses have also joined the effort. A program by Compass Group called Imperfectly Delicious has sourced almost a million pounds of off-grade product for use in over 24 states. Founded in 1994, Alaska-based non-profit SeaShare, redistributes bycatch and donations of first rate seafood to food banks. The group donated more than 200 million seafood servings as of 2015.

Retail giant Walmart changes its method of addressing egg cartons with single broken eggs and as a result saved over 37 million eggs in the first 8 months after the change.

'We know what needs to be done, but industry can't solve this problem alone. Consumers are responsible for 44 percent of the food waste sent to landfills,' Stasz said. 'If we're going to make a serious dent in food waste as a nation, we need to find was to help consumers reduce waste.'

Conaway said the hearing is a positive step.

'It's a tremendous opportunity for us to take a closer look at our food chain and figure out a way to ensure that food grown in this country reaches the dinner table, not the trash can,' he said.

Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, resulting in 62.5 million tons of wasted food each year.This waste results in the loss of natural resources, including the 25% of the U.S.'s fresh water and 300 million barrels of oil that are used to produce food that ends up in landfills.

Source: The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact