Research shows confusion over date labels accounts for 8 percent of consumer food waste in the U.S., costing around $30 billion a year. In this Q&A Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, updates us on the status of the Food Date Labeling Act, introduced to the legislature for the third time.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

March 21, 2024

7 Min Read
Briana Snyder / Alamy Stock Photo

Research shows confusion over date labels accounts for 8 percent of consumer food waste in the U.S., costing around $30 billion a year. In this Q&A Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, updates us on the status of the Food Date Labeling Act, introduced to the legislature for the third time. Gunders dives into what it will mean for food manufacturers and other businesses as well as what issues it’s intended to clear up if it passes.

Waste360: Can you update us on the status of the Food Date Labeling Act?

Gunders: The Food Date Labeling Act was reintroduced in Congress and has progressed into committee. This is the third time this act has been introduced. Our hope is that date labeling legislation will be included as a provision of the 2024 Farm Bill later this year. And the recently released Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics outlined a consumer education campaign that could include information on what labels mean, should it be passed.

Waste360: What’s in the language and why is this specific language important?

Gunders: Many people don’t realize that currently there are no federal mandates to guide food businesses in labeling food. Some businesses voluntarily label their products, but because there are no consistent standards, we’ve ended up with a patchwork of different messages across the country.

The proposed legislation would create two distinct labels – “BEST If Used By” to indicate when a food is at its peak quality and “Use By” to indicate potential safety concerns. This is important, because right now, the vast majority of date label messages – “Fresh Until,” “Best By,” “Enjoy By,” etc. – refer to quality. That date generally is just based on a manufacturer’s estimate for when something is at its absolute best, even when it’s perfectly fine to eat after.

The two new labels would help clear up the mystery for consumers as to what’s okay to eat after the date and what’s not. I think people would be surprised to realize that it’s safe to eat a lot of the food that they are throwing away just because it’s a day or two past the date on the label.

Adding a date label would be voluntary (as it is now), but if a food manufacturer or producer chooses to do so, they need to use one of the two approved options.  The legislation also requires that food with a “BEST if Used By” label be allowed to be sold or donated after its date. This is important as there are 20 states that currently restrict sale or donation after the date on a product.

This language has been endorsed by a number of organizations – including ReFED and other members of the Zero Food Waste Coalition, and over 23 industry leaders, researchers, and others – as a way to simplify the current process, which we frequently describe as being like “the Wild West,” where anything goes.

Waste360: Can you brief us on the earliest work to reform data labeling and what ultimately led to the push for federal laws?

Gunders: Date labels emerged in the 1970s when, as large grocery stores became more prominent, consumers began to demand a way to know how fresh the food they were buying was. While several national bills to create standardized labeling were proposed, none passed. In the absence of federal legislation, states began creating their own laws, which led to the patchwork that we have today. A paper released in 2013 jointly by Harvard and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) raised the alarm at how much inconsistency there was in food date labels, and how much food was going to waste because of it, and calling for a standardized two-date system.

Language to standardize date labels was first proposed in the Food Recovery Act of 2015, which did not pass.  In 2017, the Food Manufacturing Institute (FMI) and the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) adopted joint industry guidelines to standardize dates to the two-date system. In 2019, the first Food Date Labeling Act was introduced, and again in 2021 and 2023.

Waste360: What’s the confusion around date labels and what is driving this?

Gunders: There’s currently no federal requirements around date labels, except when it comes to infant formula. Most states have some sort of a policy for date labels, but these are inconsistent across the country. And nearly half of states have a …policy that requires labels on some products but not others, and then limits or even prohibits food from being sold or donated once that date is reached. (See state-level date label policies here.)

The basic problem around date labels is that many people think they are telling them the food is bad, when in fact, they are typically meant to be an indicator of freshness or peak quality. So, people are throwing perfectly good food away because they are mis-interpreting these dates. At the same time, there is a very small subset of foods where the manufacturer is trying to indicate the food should be discarded. But because there’s no formal definitions for the phrases used with dates, there’s no way to know if a date is telling you about quality or that you should throw it out.

Waste360: What has been the outcome of confusion around date labels?

Gunders: A recent study from MITRE and the Gallup Organization showed that one out of three households surveyed said they often or always throw away food that has passed the date on its label. It also found that people who often or always throw away food once it’s reached its expiration date waste twice as much as those who never or rarely throw away food that’s past its expiration date.

And it’s not just consumers that are affected. Grocery stores use date labels to know when to rotate products, and they can face brand concerns if they are seen as offering products that have “expired.”

Waste360: Is the food industry at large on board with this proposed legislation? What’s their rationale?

Gunders: A number of food industry associations and alliances have expressed support for this type of legislation, including the CBA, FMI, and others. See here for 23 businesses that signed an open letter in support. 

And a number of food businesses – manufacturers like Unilever, along with others that handle and serve food to customers like Marriott and Hilton; businesses that serve food to their employees like Google; and more – have signed up as members of the Zero Food Waste Coalition.

Generally, there is more business support now than ever. For one thing, if this bill passed, it would save businesses from having to follow an ever-changing landscape of laws across states. Also, consumers are becoming more savvy and expecting more from businesses. But I think most businesses want to do the right thing. They understand the impacts that wasted food has, and they want to do their part to help.

I think many have already moved to this system because of the FMI and CBA’s voluntary guidelines, so it doesn’t create additional work for them.  And from a policy perspective, food waste reduction is one of those issues that gets support from both sides of the aisle. No one wants to waste food.

Waste360: If the Act passes, what role will government play in education?

Gunders: This is an important question, and one that we don’t know the specifics on yet. The good news is that the government seems to realize that education is important. In fact, the recently released Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics outlined a consumer education campaign that could include information on what labels mean, along with other information about how to reduce food waste in the home.

There are examples for how public education campaigns like this have been successfully deployed in the past – think of “Smokey Bear” to prevent forest fires – and organizations like the Ad Council can facilitate distribution of campaign messages and materials.

It’s critical, though, that enough money is allocated to cover media costs at a level that can break through the clutter and get noticed.

And it’s important that consumers get these messages in a range of spaces where they’re engaging with food, so that they are always top of mind. It would be great to have grocery stores and restaurants displaying campaign messages, so that consumers have the information they need at their fingertips when it’s time to act. 

Waste360: What else do we need beyond date labeling to prevent food waste?

Gunders: The important thing to realize about food waste is that it’s many different problems across our entire food system. Standardizing date labels is important and would go a long way toward helping consumers make informed decisions about which foods they should be eating. But there’s no single silver bullet to solve food waste. It will take everyone who’s connected to the food system – food businesses, funders, policymakers, consumers, and more – working together to address the waste that they have control over.

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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