December 10, 2015

Tis the season for giving…expired food.

Vanessa Coffman

Vanessa Coffman

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

RS81_Metal cans on assembly line 78429919-scr copyThe moment Thanksgiving ended, the 25-foot Christmas tree went up in my building’s lobby, carols began blasting on holiday-only radio stations, and even Janice in accounting now cheerily wishes me a pleasant day. And while you or I may not celebrate religious festivities, the cool winter air, decorations, and holiday parties do inspire—for some—the spirit of giving, love, and celebration.

For many, however, this is a season of anxiety. How will I buy food? Will the food bank have holiday items? How will I explain this situation to my kids if we fall short?

According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, 1 in 7 Americans faces hunger.

But a bill introduced in the House and Senate last month has a chance to help improve this all-too-common situation food-insecure families face, now and year-round. If only the authors had had the foresight to include a provision that could make it wildly successful. Something that could save 133 billion pounds of food a year.

The Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2015 is referred to as “commonsense legislation” to improve the understanding shoppers have about the food they buy. It “seeks to minimize confusing and misleading information consumers encounter on food packages” but nonsensically leaves out any improvements to date labeling.

Date labeling is one of the most confusing and misleading parts of food packaging.

“Best by,” “sell by,” and “packaged on” dates are not mandated by any federal agency. They merely suggest when items will be at peak freshness, not safety, as an aid to grocers. Those dates are not intended to inform shoppers. And research conducted by the Institute for Food Technologists says they don’t, because no one quite knows what they mean.

In fact, current date labeling misleads consumers into wasting perfectly safe and wholesome food. Even worse, it keeps food from reaching others who are in need.

When we toss items that have gone past the date printed on a can or box we think we’re doing the right thing. After all, Mom always said, “better safe than sorry.” Recent studies have shown that an estimated 40 percent of food in the US goes to the dump.

With today’s methods of food preservation, most packaged foods are safe to eat months and even years past the printed dates. Food safety and freshness rely on how goods are handled before and after hitting store shelves, and can be highly variable – unlike the imprint on your yogurt container. While those padded expiration timeframes may be helping grocers avoid liability, they’re wasting more than perfectly safe and oftentimes fresh food that could be feeding people across the nation. They waste the fuel, fertilizers, money, time, and land that went into producing those items. Buying and then disposing of edible food wastes consumers’ time and money as well.

Consider that once they go to the local landfill, those still-good items waste additional resources. Food waste is the single greatest contributor to municipal landfills, costing roughly $1.3 billion in disposal fees, according to USDA.

Last year, Feeding America was able to divert over 2 billion pounds of safe, edible food and give itto Americans facing hunger. But there’s still another 133 billion pounds we can save.

In October, the USDA rolled out the first national food waste reduction goal: a 50 percent decrease by 2030. But this can happen much faster.

We need to come together and tell our legislators that date labeling matters and a science-based standardization to the system must be added into the food labeling legislation to make it truly useful.

Govtrack.us, a government transparency site, gives this bill only a 1 percent chance of being enacted this Congress. If that fate does befall the bill, I seriously hope we can move the authors come back at it with improved labeling next year.

Until then, don’t be timid about eating or donating food that’s past its sell-by date. [For a detailed list of how long things last, on average, before they need to be put in the freezer, click here.]

‘Tis the season for giving, and the corn and peas your kids won’t touch and have been crammed in the back of the cupboard will gladly be eaten by another family. And no, it’s not rude to donate them and no, you won’t get in trouble. In fact there is a Good Samaritan law protecting you and businesses that donate consumables.

It’s better to be safe and donate that good food than be sorry you didn’t—and have another family go hungry at the holidays.

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