In the future, food expiration date labels could be far less confusing, thanks to a new bill introduced to the U.S. Senate and House. The proposed legislation does’t just make labels clearer—it also aims to reduce the 40% of food that gets thrown away by consumers.
The problem comes from expiration dates themselves. They don’t have much to do with whether the food is still safe to eat or not. For example, salt will pretty much never go bad, but still (in some states) has an expiration date. Food expiration dates are not set by federal law. Instead, they usually reflect the manufacturer’s own suggestion as to when the food will be at its best.
“Contrary to popular belief, expiration date labels often don’t indicate whether food is still safe to eat,” says Dana Gunders, scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. “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.”
People see that the expiration date has passed and throw away perfectly good food. So much, in fact, that the majority of food wasted in the U.S. goes this route. The NRDC says that consumers are responsible for more waste than grocery stores, restaurants or any other part of the supply chain.
The NRDC gives us some numbers to illustrate the size of the problem. For instance, 28% of the world’s agricultural land—an area bigger than all of Canada—grows food that will get tossed away. Twenty-five percent of the U.S.’s water is used to produce food that will never be eaten, and once it is in the ground, it takes up more landfill space than any other kind of trash. The average American family of four is throwing away $1,500 worth of food every year.
“If global food loss and waste was a country,” says the report, ”it would have the world’s largest greenhouse gas footprint after the U.S. and China.”
To fix this, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Chellie Pingree have introduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, which could straighten out the language used in labeling to make it more uniform and more understandable. The law would apply to both groceries and to ready-to-eat foods, and they would be labeled with the words “best if used by,” along with a date. The food labeler can also “include a quality date on food packaging,” which is their own recommendation for the best time to eat the food.
In addition, there will be a “safety date” which will use the words “expires on.” This might be the smartest part of the whole legislation, because most people already look at the expiry date and use that to gauge the safety of the food. In the future, the expiry date would actually correspond to the actual safe life of the food. And some foods will be exempt from these labels, meaning that something like salt could possibly be sold without an expiration date.
Food waste is not just a financial problem but an environmental one. In addition to the land use, the amount of landfill trash, and the water wasted growing cops and watering animals, the food industry uses a ton of energy, including 300 million gallons of oil a year. And all that landfill produces methane. In fact, 25% of landfill methane comes from dumped food.
Just reducing waste by a small percentage can have a big impact, and if a simple change in food labelling can do that, it’s worth getting behind. And if you’re more motivated by money? Then you might be interested to hear that eliminating food waste could be a $1 billion opportunity.