Communities

Expiration Dates Are Bunk, And The Government Is Finally Cracking Down

by Alicia Kennedy

May 26, 2016
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You might soon be able to quit sticking jars of mayo in your roommate’s face and asking, “Does this seem okay to eat?” A piece of legislation called The Food Date Labeling Act would force companies to use clearer language when informing us of the “sell by” date on packaged foods, letting you know once and for all whether rolling the dice will result in an extended session with your toilet bowl or just a slightly less tasty lunch. The members of Congress behind it—Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine)—are also hoping it’ll help curb that buzzed-about problem-du-jour: food waste.

The act would standardize labeling so that “best if used by” will refer to quality, and “expires on” will let you know something is no longer safe to consume. While the former will be printed on shelf-stable goods, the latter will be on those items that can cause serious health issues if expired, like dairy and eggs. Unlike debates about what “natural” means or whether products containing genetically modified ingredients should be labeled, this one seems rather clear cut. 

In addition to the national system it would institute for date labeling, it would also “ensure that food is allowed to be sold or donated after its quality date, and educate consumers about the meaning of new labels so that they can make better economic and safety decision,” according to Pingree’s website

Marsha Cohen, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law who specializes in food and drug law, thinks it has the possibility of cutting food waste if handled properly. “I'm sure [the Food Date Labeling Act] will leave a lot to FDA and USDA to work out,” she says. This means looking at these possible label changes from a number of angles. Cohen points out that a “best by” or “expires on” label in San Francisco, where the climate is rather cool, will mean something different than it does in Phoenix, where it’s hot, and these factors need to be taken into account. “The devil is in the details,” she says, “not just in creating some standardization for what kind of data you use for an expiration date. Safety can depend a lot on how a product is handled and so can quality.” 

It is, she believes, an opportunity to instruct consumers on how to be smarter in the kitchen and to know when something is truly spoiled or can be salvaged. Pointing to her own experience, she notes how that can really decrease food waste: “I've been told by food scientists, ‘Mold on hard cheese? Cut it off.’” But if you know how to cook with, say, slightly sour milk, there will be less of it going into the garbage. “I'm kind of maniacal about not throwing stuff out,” Cohen admits.

Even if the act doesn’t pass, it’s drawing attention to the impact of labeling on waste and how these date labels affect whether food can be donated to those in need—a clear matter of importance to Congresswoman Pinigree, who also introduced The Food Recovery Act of 2015

Maybe she should team up with her local freegans?

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Expiration Dates Are Bunk, And The Government Is Finally Cracking Down