Food waste is a huge problem. Don’t believe it? Just visit your local supermarket dumpster. You’ll be able to feed yourself for weeks on the treasure trove of perfectly good items that have been tossed because they’ve almost reached their arbitrary sell-by dates.
Yes, arbitrary. “The dates on food packages are very conservative,” Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University told Consumerist in 2011. “If the product was stored properly, it should last well beyond the date on the package.” And yet, that doesn’t stop litigation-averse supermarkets and spooked consumers from throwing out what amounts to millions of pounds of food each year.
The problem is, there’s no accepted standard when it comes to food labeling. The difference between “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” is mostly just the verbiage. 41 states mandate food labeling; all of those states’ compliance requirements are different, which is a big headache for food producers just trying to get it right.
Thankfully, new legislation, proposed by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree from Maine, could mean the beginning of the end for food label confusion. The pair announced a plan to establish a national standard for food labeling this morning.
In creating nation-wide rules for labeling food, the duo hopes to create a distinction between the date a product might not be peak quality and the date that product is actually unsafe to eat.
Need an illustration as to the difference between those dates? Look to the Twinkie. You can probably get away with eating that years-old Twinkie you found at the back of your grandma’s pantry—but it might not be as tasty as a fresh Twinkie. That’s where the first date comes in. But if you know for a fact that Grandma’s Twinkie comes from the pack she purchased as a celebration of your birth twenty-five years ago, and it’s also covered in a fine greenish fur, you might think twice about where the nearest ER is before eating it. Freshness versus food safety is a big distinction. (Although this example is obviously just for illustration purposes, we all know Twinkies never age.)
The new legislation would also override the restriction of selling food past the date on the label, provided that date is purely an indication of quality. And for truly perishable foods like dairy, meat, and eggs, the labeling will be more explicit, giving an “expires on” date that’s actually created by the FDA and the USDA (as opposed to just being entirely self-regulated, as is the case right now).
The goals for fixing food labeling are exciting, if not a bit ambitious. We’ve been around the ol’ Washington block before, and we’re not holding our breaths. But we’re also not tossing out our milk that supposedly expired a month ago until it actually curdles in our coffee.