Confusion over expiration labels each year contributes to the waste of more than 130 billion pounds of food — one-third of the U.S. supply — worth an estimated $160 billion, according to a new report.
The Government Accounting Office says the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration haven’t done enough to clarify the labels, which confuse consumers and retailers alike.
“Except for infant formula, date labels are not required on packaged foods by federal regulations, and manufacturers who apply date labels use a wide variety of introductory phrases (e.g., sell by, best by, best if used by), none of which indicate safety, according to USDA,” the GAO said in a report issued this week.
The nonpartisan government watchdog noted that while the agencies have provided more information to consumers, they ultimately “have not worked with state, local, and tribal governments” to facilitate cooperation to reduce food waste, which is straining the entire U.S. “food system” from farms to stores to underfed families.
Across the country a wide range of expiration labels are in use, the GAO noted, highlighting 13 that range from “sell by” to “use or freeze by.” The labels offer approximations of when food could spoil.
“The lack of clarity around our current expiry labels creates a lot of fear. These labels tend to be more about food quality, not safety,” said Elise Springuel, program coordinator at Food Link, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that redistributes unsold food to low-income households.
“So many different labels contribute to the confusion, which means people are often hesitant are try food that is still perfectly good,” Ms. Springuel told The Washington Times.
Recent years have seen increasing pressure on the FDA, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to better address the country’s food waste problem.
Recent reports by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the National Institutes of Health and environmental advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have documented the amount of edible food that ends up in U.S. landfills.
The estimate of 130 billion pounds of food annually wasted comes from a 2014 USDA study and a 2017 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Although the USDA and the EPA in 2015 agreed to work together to cut food waste in half by 2030 (the FDA joined the effort in 2018), a GAO report released in June blasted the agencies for making little headway, especially in terms of setting common goals.
That report also underscored the expiration labeling problem but also noted that the FDA was backing food industry efforts to standardize expiration labeling.
Last May, the FDA announced it was supporting the standardized use of “Best If Used By” — which the Grocery Manufacturers Association also endorsed.
In a response to the GAO’s latest report, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote that food labels were one of six “priority actions” the agency is pursuing.
Last month, Reps. Chellie Pingree, Maine Democrat, and Dan Newhouse, Washington Republican, introduced legislation aimed at standardizing date labels. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, introduced a Senate companion bill.
“With this piece of legislation, we can help ensure food is being used and eaten, rather than thrown out due to confusion,” Ms. Pingree said in a statement.