Opinion: Congress Should Standardize Food Labels in Farm Bill to Curb Food Waste - Modern Farmer

Opinion: Congress Should Standardize Food Labels in Farm Bill to Curb Food Waste

Americans throw out 6.5 million tons of edible food each year. Changing the ‘best by’ labels would fix that.

Photography by Shutterstock

Up to 40 percent of all food produced around the world never makes it to anyone’s plate—a staggering fact. As Congress works to finalize the most important piece of food legislation—the coming 2024 Farm Bill—our elected leaders have an opportunity to make real progress on food waste

In the US, an estimated 77 million tons of food are wasted annually, even as one in eight American families struggles with hunger. Growing all that food that no one eats wastes financial and natural resources, while also contributing to climate change. Food is the number one item we throw into landfills, where it drives almost 60 percent of their methane emissions.

But there is an easy way to cut down a large portion of that food waste: Change the “best by” labeling system. According to new research by MITRE and Gallup, there are more than 50 different date label phrases in most grocery stores today—“sell by,” “use by,” “best if used by,” “enjoy by,” and so forth—leaving consumers confused about whether these terms refer to freshness, safety or other issues. As a result, one third of all consumers “often or always” throw away food that has passed its date label. The end result is that households and food businesses throw away perfectly wholesome food (6.5 million tons annually in the US, which is nearly 10 percent of all US food waste) and spend an average $1,500 a year per household on food that they then toss in the trash. 

The US has set a goal to halve its food waste by 2030. To accelerate progress, the Zero Food Waste Coalition (a group of nonprofits, major food businesses and communities) has come together to help advance two commonsense pieces of bipartisan legislation: the Food Date Labeling Act (FDLA) and the NO TIME TO Waste Act. Congress should pass both these acts in the upcoming Farm Bill.

The FDLA aims to establish a consistent, easy-to-understand food date labeling system, at no cost to the government. The FDLA would streamline food labeling into two simple categories: “Best If Used By” to communicate peak food quality and “Use By” to indicate the end of a product’s estimated shelf life. Most importantly, the act would launch an education campaign to help consumers understand the difference between these categories.

Simplified date labels are one of the most cost-effective strategies to reduce food waste across the supply chain—with the majority of the benefits going to consumers. The FDLA would also make more food available for donation by clarifying that food can still be donated after a quality date (which 20 states prohibit or restrict today). More than 23 industry leaders, such as Walmart and Unilever, have signed on in support of the FDLA.

In addition to the FDLA, the NO TIME TO Waste Act would establish an Office of Food Loss and Waste at the US Department of Agriculture. This office would spearhead a whole-of-government approach to reducing food waste, strengthen food waste research, create consumer awareness campaigns and support public-private partnerships and local food recovery efforts. 

These two pieces of legislation are a no-brainer for Congress to pass. Tackling food waste is good for consumers, businesses and the environment. Meeting our national goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent would deliver a $73-billion annual net financial benefit (again, in large part to consumers), reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million metric tons and create 51,000 jobs over 10 years. The 2024 Farm Bill is a golden opportunity to make meaningful progress in our fight against food waste, help families stretch their limited food dollars and transition to a more efficient and sustainable food system. 

Pete Pearson. Photography courtesy of Pete Pearson/WWF.

Pete Pearson is senior director of food waste with World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

The Zero Food Waste Coalition aims to inform and influence policy at the local, state and federal levels and share policy updates and opportunities with partners and stakeholders around the country to bring consumers, businesses and government together to make food loss and waste history. The Coalition was launched by NRDC, WWF, ReFE, and FLPC in April 2023, formalizing a partnership that began in January 2020.


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10 days ago

All good, but my thought is we live, many of us, in a spend mode. We buy more food than we consume — our eyes and our wallets are bigger than our stomachs. Do vagrants go to dumpsters in poor neighborhoods? What ever happened to garbage disposals under the sink? The phrase “Waste not, want not” goes back to the 1930s. As does the voice of the mother telling her child who refuses to eat what is on his (my!) plate: ” The children in China are crying for it.” Solving the food waste problem is doable if you put… Read more »