CA Bills Aim to Relieve Doubt and Keep Good Food from Trash

Once again, California is leading the charge on sustainability solutions. Sitting on the Governor’s desk are two bills that will help cut through confusion and encourage getting good food into people’s bellies instead of tossed into the trash. 

In the U.S., up to 40 percent of our food goes uneaten. Food loss and waste occurs at every stage of the supply chain.  And by the time our food gets to our table a lot of resources have gone into it including water, fertilizer, and land to grow it; labor to pick, transport and prepare it; energy to move and keep it at the right temperature. All in all, our wasted food has an annual cost estimated at $218 billion. Even in California, where we have some of the most progressive recycling targets and significant compost collection infrastructure, about 5.6 million tons of food is sent to landfills every year. 

AB 1219, the California Good Samaritan Food Donation Act authored by Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman strengthens and expands liability protections for food donors to further encourage donation of surplus food to hungry people. Both the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and a 1977 California law protect individuals, businesses, and government entities that donate food to nonprofit food recovery organizations. Despite these protections, a lot of wholesome surplus food goes to waste. 

Last year, NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic outlined recommendations for how the Emerson Act could be improved. AB 1219 codifies two of those recommendations in California: donations to individuals and donation of past-date food. Currently, only food donations to nonprofit charitable organizations or a food bank are protected from legal liability. The bill expands protections to include donations directly given to end recipients. So long as the entity giving out the food makes a good faith evaluation that the food is wholesome, the donation will now be protected. 

Another important component of the California bill is that it explicitly extends protections to the donation of food that is fit for human consumption even if it has exceeded the labeled shelf life date recommended by the manufacturer. U.S. consumers and businesses needlessly trash billions of pounds of food due to confusion over how to interpret the various date labels printed on food. However, almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food.  In fact, the dates are generally suggestions by manufacturers for when food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat. So long as it remains wholesome, surplus food should be donated to feed people, not buried in a landfill.

Image of egg carton with Sell by date label

Photo: Andrea Spacht

Speaking of those food dates, AB 954, authored by Assembly Member David Chiu, aims to cut through the confusion and streamline food date labels by encouraging the voluntary use of one term to indicate the quality of a product and one phrase to indicate the safety of a product rather than the myriad date descriptors that are used now. The bill requires the California Department of Food and Agriculture to publish information and encourage food manufacturers to use uniform terms on food product labels. “BEST if Used by” or “BEST if Used or Frozen by” would indicate the date by which best quality can be expected whereas “USE by” or “USE by or Freeze by” would indicate the date through which food should be consumed or frozen because the product has increased safety concerns with time. Furthermore, if the bill is signed, the department would encourage food distributors and retailers to stop using “sell by” date labels or to hide them from consumers (these dates are really meant for grocers and are typically earlier, but consumers mistake them to mean the product is bad). Additionally, the bill includes a consumer education component to help us all understand how these labels are being used.

In December 2016, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service released new guidance recommending that manufacturers and retailers use “Best if used by” as the universal terminology to indicate quality. And comprehensive food waste bills, including the same standards for date labeling on food, have been introduced federally. Last week, a coalition of global food companies issued a call to action asking food producers and retailers to simplify date labels and to partner with government agencies to educate consumers. 

The time is ripe for meaningful action to cut food waste. In signing these bills, Governor Brown will set California further ahead on the path to achieving a more efficient and secure food system. Perhaps the Feds will follow suit?

AB 1219 is cosponsored by Californians Against Waste and the California Association of Food Banks. AB 954 is sponsored by Californians Against Waste.

About the Authors

Andrea Spacht

Sustainable Food Systems Specialist, Food & Agriculture program
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Comprehensive federal legislation to reduce wasted food has just been introduced in both the House and Senate.

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