Editorial Comment Publisher/Editor

 

 

Time Has Come For National Food Date Labeling Law

Dick Groves
Publisher/Editor
Cheese Reporter

August 16, 2019


Legislation introduced in both the House and Senate late last month (and covered in a story that appeared on page 11 of our Aug. 2nd issue) would establish requirements for quality and discard dates for food and beverage products. This common-sense legislation deserves serious consideration by Congress, and also by the food and dairy industry.

The legislation would give food labelers two options for date labeling: a “discard date,” which would require the use of the phrase “USE By”; or a “quality date,” which would require the use of the phrase “BEST If Used By.”

There are at least three compelling reasons why this legislation makes sense. First, it would create uniformity for companies that choose to use some sort of date label on their products. Currently, food labelers use a number of date-related phrases, including the two phrases above as well as such murky phrases as “Sell by” “Fresh by” and “Enjoy by.”

The former is intended to be useful for the retailer but isn’t very useful for the consumer, since it’s neither an indicator of quality nor safety; and the latter is also neither an indicator of quality nor safety (is a product with the “Enjoy by” phrase supposed to be enjoyable up to that date and then still safe but no longer enjoyable after that date?).

And then there are some foods that have a date on them but either don’t clarify what that date means or put the clarification somewhere else on the label. For example, we found a product that includes a clear date label near one end of the package, but the statement “For best when used by information, please see date printed on package” appears elsewhere, and in a different typeface and color.

What these different date labels and definitions mean is consumer confusion about quality and safety, various studies have found. Limiting the date-related phrases to just “BEST If Used By” and “USE By” would at least be a positive step toward reducing consumer confusion.

Second, these quality and safety food date labels are strictly optional for food companies. This is spelled out several times in the legislation. For example, the short summary of the bill states that the measure would establish requirements for quality and discard dates that are, at the option of food labelers, included in food packaging...(emphasis added).

Later, the legislation says the terms “discard date” and “quality date” mean a date voluntarily printed on food packaging (emphasis added).

If that’s not clear enough, the legislation’s sections on both quality dates and discard dates note that the decisions on whether to use either of these dates on food packaging “shall be at the discretion of the food labeler,” which is defined in the legislation as the producer, manufacturer, distributor, or retailer that places a date label on a food package.

Keeping these food date phrases voluntarily rather than mandatory is definitely a positive.

Third, this legislation appears to make it easier to reduce food waste. It does so by reducing consumer confusion, so that food that might be perfectly edible ends up being consumed rather than ending up in a landfill.

It seems like any time there’s some initiative regarding food waste, the same or similar statistics are cited: In the US, food waste is estimated at between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.

This amount of waste has far-reaching impacts on society, USDA has pointed out: wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills and land, water, labor, energy and other inputs are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food.

Related to this point, wasted food that ends up in landfills is also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to some sources. This is because decomposing food creates methane, a greenhouse gas which, in 2017, accounted for about 10.2 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Finally, there are a couple of other interesting points that make this legislation worth passing. First, it’s at least somewhat bipartisan, which isn’t all that common in Congress these days.

By “somewhat bipartisan,” we’re referring to the fact that, in the House, the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced by a Democrat (US Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine) and a Republican (US Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state).

There’s no such bipartisanship with the Senate bill, which was introduced by a Democrat (Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut). That probably dooms the legislation’s chances in that chamber (which is controlled by Republicans). Still, bipartisan legislation in either chamber of Congress is noteworthy.

Second, the legislation has garnered the support of an interesting array of outside entities, including representatives of food banks such as Feeding America; consumer organizations such as the National Consumers League; environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Wildlife Fund; and food companies such as Unilever and Kellogg.

A national food dating law is an idea whose time has come.

 

Dick Groves

Dick Groves has been publisher/editor of Cheese Reporter since 1989. He has over 35 years experience covering the dairy industry. His weekly editorial is read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3791 dgroves@cheesereporter.com
https://twitter.com/cheesereporter.


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Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to
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