Confused by Food Date Labels? Congress Aims to Set Them Straight.

The legislation would reduce food waste (and its steep environmental toll) by keeping perfectly good food out of the trash.

Packages of fresh vegetables nearing the date on the label, but the product is still fresh.

Credit: Matt Nager for NRDC

Date labels on food packages are many and varied, and all too often misunderstood—leading to unnecessary food (and money) waste. In fact, up to 40 percent of all food goes uneaten in the United States. Now, twin bills making their way through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives aim to standardize the language on food date labels, helping take a bite out of the problem.

“Tons of perfectly good food and money are trashed every day, in supermarkets and in our own homes, because of confusing date labels,” says Elizabeth Balkan, director of food waste at NRDC.

The bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act has recently been introduced by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, Maine Representative Chellie Pingree, and Washington Representative Dan Newhouse. “By streamlining food date labels nationwide and educating people about what they mean,” Balkan says, “this legislation will help reduce this unnecessary waste.”

Currently, the federal government has rules governing only the date labels for infant formula. The wording used on all other food products is subject to food processors’ or retailers’ discretion, along with a patchwork of state and local requirements. Given that at least four dozen date labeling terms have been applied to different food products, it’s no wonder consumers are confused about what the labels do—and don’t—mean. Studies show that more than 80 percent of Americans toss food prematurely due to confusion over these labels, contributing to a food waste problem with a national price tag of more than $200 billion each year.

Food waste also has significant environmental impacts. Meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables all require huge amounts of land and water to produce—with shipping, packaging, processing, refrigeration, and disposal adding even more to the energy and carbon pollution associated with what we eat (or prematurely discard) every day. Balkan says, “That adds up to a staggering amount of climate pollution, wasted water, and missed opportunities to feed people in need.” The Food Date Labeling Act can help set that straight, to the immediate benefit of consumers.

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