California’s AB 660, which is aiming to mandate specific terminology around date labels on food packaging, took another step forward May 18, 2023 as it passed through the House Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

May 22, 2023

5 Min Read
California’s Food Label Legislation Sees More Movement
University of Delaware professor Kent Messer has co-authored a paper looking at the good, the bad and the ugly of food labels.University of Delaware

California’s AB 660, which is aiming to mandate specific terminology around date labels on food packaging, took another step forward May 18, 2023 as it passed through the House Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The bill passed earlier this year out of the Assembly Health and Agriculture Committees. The entire Assembly will cast its vote by June 2 to determine if the bill moves on to the Senate.

AB 660 would require the phrases “Best if used by” or “Best if used by or frozen by” to indicate quality, or “Use by” or “Use if frozen by” to indicate safety. And brands would no longer be able to use consumer-facing “Sell by” dates.

AB 660 bridges the issues of addressing food waste, keeping organics out of landfills, and cutting methane generation that contributes to climate change, contend the legislation’s two co-sponsors: environmental nonprofits Californians Against Waste (CAW) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) is among key supporters, along with waste-focused groups, environmental organizations, and several food banks. They see targeting food labels to address these issues as low-hanging fruit, with data to back their argument.

Consumer confusion around labels leads to up to 20 percent of food waste, estimates the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some research suggests food tossed at households amounts to more than what’s thrown out at grocery stores and restaurants combined. And ReFED reports that standardizing labels is the most cost-effective way to reduce that waste.

For too long Californians have been misled by unclear labels on food, Irwin testified at a hearing on April 25.

“Sell by dates for example are meant to show grocers when to rotate stock.  They are meaningless to the consumer. The result of this confusion is a staggering amount of food waste … This ultimately costs consumers money at the grocery store and adds to climate change as wasted food rots in landfills,” she said.

AB 660 would end this confusion. And it actually takes the industry’s own adopted label standard to indicate the quality or safety of food, she argued.

For some history, several years back, the industry committed to fully adopt voluntary standards using recommended quality and safety date phrases by 2020, and to discourage consumer-facing sell by dates. While the legislature codified the proposed terminology with AB 954 in 2017, uniform, nationwide date labelling has not happened yet.

“Voluntary implementation is clearly insufficient. Consumer education as to what terms on which foods mean what, isn’t possible until we streamline these labels,” testified Nicole Kurian, legislative director, Californians Against Waste at the same April hearing where Irwin spoke.


“Consumers are bombarded with all types of expiration date formats [up to 50 different phrases, nationwide]. Each term can be used to mean different things by different brands, and some expiry dates have no phrase next to them at all,” Kurian said, adding AB 660 calls for a small change that will have huge ramifications.

Studies show 84 percent of consumers toss food once the date on the package has passed, regardless of what the terminology means. About 64 percent and 44.8 percent of them knew the general meaning of the “Best if used by” and “Use by labels,” respectively, according to study results published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Banning the “Sell by” date would especially be meaningful, Gracyna Mohabir, policy associate, Californians Against Waste told Waste360.

“By definition, if a sell-by date is intended to tell grocers that they should sell something until a specific date, the product isn’t expected to ‘go bad’ on that date. But consumers usually throw away food on whatever date is on the package,” she says.

American households toss about $1,300 worth of food a year, generating megatons of greenhouse gases. At the same time food insecurity is a problem.

In California alone about 8 million people go hungry, and clearer labels could make it easier for food pantries to chip away at the problem and get edible food to the people they serve. Those in need have sometimes been reluctant to take it, fearing food is unsafe after dates on labels, said Andrea Collins, senior sustainable food systems specialist, Natural Resources Defense Council.

Commenting that AB 660 addresses a systemic cause of food waste with implications for health, the environment, and the economy, she said, “We need consistent labels so people stop tossing good food prematurely and so we know which foods are really a health concern.”

The Consumer Brands Association and several regional trade organizations expressed concerns about the proposed law in a letter to Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg).

“We appreciate the author’s intention to standardize terms and are committed to working on this issue moving forward,” they wrote.  But they went on to say prohibiting “sale by” dates “could result in several unintended consequences.” Among those they cited are the language could put an end to smart labels whereby consumers use their phones to learn about the date on the package, suggested storage and use information. And the industry representatives contend that if a manufacturer and/or retailer inadvertently offers products labeled for other states that don’t comply with California law they could face liability.

Bill proponents are optimistic that similar policy may be adopted elsewhere in time. Wood pointed out that California has led the way on other issues where national change soon followed.

AB 660 would mandate the same terms set forth in the federal Food Date Labeling Act.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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