WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats have found something they might be able to agree on: Garbage is bad.
That is, they agree that too much food is being tossed in the garbage. As much as 40 percent of all the food produced in America is wasted, according to a widely cited 2009 study that is now helping spur action on the Hill.
Lawmakers held an incredibly agreeable hearing on the problem last month with the House Agriculture Committee. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who had previously introduced comprehensive legislation to tackle the problem, said she was mildly surprised to be invited to testify by committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas).
“This Congress isn’t particularly active,” Pingree told The Huffington Post. “We just haven’t had a lot going on, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to move forward on an issue that really is bipartisan.”
Pingree said she’s hopeful that one of her proposals — to create uniform national standards for labels on perishable food that say “best by” or “expires on” — might be approved by Congress. Perhaps even swiftly, in legislative time.
“We have some hopes this could be taken up this year,” Pingree said.
A spokeswoman for Conaway said he’s not opposed to any of Pingree’s proposals, but offered no timeline for considering them. At a recent event hosted by Bloomberg Government, the congressman suggested he wasn’t in a huge hurry.
“This is one of those great bipartisan, broad-support [issues] that nobody has to wait on government to fix,” Conaway said. He noted that leaders could reduce food waste in part through public education efforts — like when President Barack Obama told people to sneeze into their sleeves, instead of their hands, to help prevent the spread of the flu.
One food waste problem that could be eliminated by a better informed public, Conaway said at his committee hearing, is the reluctance of some businesses to donate unused food to charity because they’re afraid of getting sued. He pointed out that Congress passed a law in 1996 that protects companies from liability for food donations.
What does “use by” mean? And how is it different from “best by”?
Food waste is also perpetuated by consumer confusion. Available data suggest that most of the food that gets wasted is thrown out by the folks at home, who are often perplexed by the dates on the labels.
Currently, the “sell by,” “best by” and “use by” dates stamped on food items don’t follow any sort of government or industrywide standard. They’re just suggestions from the food producers, and most of those dates address the food’s peak freshness, not its safety. But out of caution, many Americans will throw out food just because the “use by” date has passed.
“Ironically, despite the original intention of increasing consumer knowledge about their food, date labeling has become a largely incoherent signaling device for consumers,” the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a 2013 report. The report cited research that found label confusion caused roughly 20 percent of avoidable food waste.
Infant formula is one of the only food products with “use by” labeling subject to federal regulation, according to JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The date stamp indicates when the formula’s nutrient content degrades, meaning it will provide the baby with less nourishment — although it’s not necessarily unsafe at that point.
There are signals that the food industry, too, is open to new labeling standards. When Pingree and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) unveiled their labeling measure last month, honchos from Nestlé and the Campbell Soup Company joined them at a press conference.
In the 1970s, the National Association of Food Chains had lobbied against a serious effort to regulate date labels, arguing that new rules would raise costs and discourage companies from voluntarily providing date information. This year, its successor Food Marketing Institute — whose members operate 40,000 retail food stores across the country — offered a more circumspect response.
“We appreciate the work done by Sen. Blumenthal and Rep. Pingree in drafting the date labeling bill, and FMI continues to carefully consider the provisions included in this legislation,” FMI official Andrew Harig said in an email. “We look forward to continue working both offices to address any concerns the industry might have.”
While food companies’ decision to use date labels would remain voluntary, the Pingree-Blumenthal bill would create a uniform national standard for any such labels in which “best if used by” would indicate food quality and “expires on” would warn that the food might actually be unsafe from that point forward.
One reason the food waste issue is garnering some bipartisan interest is that it’s both relatable and solvable, said Berkenkamp. And fully solving it could save the average family something like $1,500 per year.
“We can actually crack this issue,” Berkenkamp said. “We’re seeing some very positive early signs that food waste is being received as a nonpartisan issue that can appeal to both sides of the aisle.”