'Use-by' labels contribute to food waste, House Ag panel told

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - Witnesses told the House Agriculture Committee today that “sell-by” and “use-by” labels on food products need to be standardized to help consumers make better choices and to help reduce food waste in the richest country in the world.

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, told the crowded hearing room that a staggering 40 percent of the food grown in the U.S. is wasted every year, while at the same time some 45 million people are receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

He said today's hearing - the committee's first-ever review of the food-waste issue - is a “tremendous opportunity for us to take a closer look at our food chain and figure out a way to ensure that food grown in this country reaches the dinner table, not the trash can.”

Lets Talk Food

The leadoff witness was Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who earlier this month, along with Sen. Dick Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced a bill to reform date labeling, which she said has been identified as one of the most cost-effective methods for reducing food waste.

Pingree pointed out that more than 40 states require date labels on certain food products, without distinguishing whether the labels reflect quality or safety. In addition, more than 20 states restrict or ban the sale or donation of food after the date, when for the most part the food is perfectly safe to eat.

Her bill, she noted in a fact sheet, “proposes the establishment of a uniform national system for date labeling in order to clearly distinguish between quality and safety dates.” It would entail creating two labels, one saying “expires on” for food that really is unsafe to eat after a certain date, and another that says “best if used by,” for everything else.

“The bill would also make sure that no states or local health department could ban the donation of perfectly good food, just because the date on the label has passed,” she said in prepared remarks.

Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the panel's ranking member, was the only lawmaker to challenge Pingree's proposal, and he did so gently. He noted that consumers are already confused by the many different types of information that can be found on food labels, and that even-more crowded labels are coming as GMOs become more common.

Most of the other witnesses at today's hearing agreed with the need to standardize the date labels, while calling for additional action to tackle food waste.

Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, said food manufacturers and retailers are often concerned about two issues when deciding whether to donate excess food to food banks and other charities: cost and liability. She pointed out that federal law already provides strong liability protection for food donations, and that the 2016 omnibus spending bill expanded opportunities for businesses to claim an enhanced tax breaks for food donations.

Leib said businesses and consumers need to be educated about these provisions in the law.

John Oxford, president and CEO of L&M Cos., in Raleigh, North Carolina, said Congress could help with the food waste problem by dealing with immigration. The company grows its own fruits and vegetables and markets crops for growers across the U.S., Mexico and Central America. Oxford is also chairman-elect of the Produce Marketing Association, which represents 2,700 companies that market fresh fruit and vegetables in the U.S. and 44 other countries.

“We certainly need help on the labor issue,” he said in his prepared remarks. “I recognize this is a difficult issue to tackle politically, but we need Congress to take action” to make sure there are enough workers to gather the crops before they rot in the fields.

Witnesses also agreed that Congress could help reduce food waste by providing funds to help charities buy the trucks and refrigerators they need to move and store the food that is being donated.

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Meghan Stasz, senior director of sustainability with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, testified on behalf of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), an initiative of 30 companies formed in 2011 by GMA, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association. Member companies work across sectors to identify sources of food waste, increase the amount of food sent to food banks and decrease what is sent to landfills.

In 2014, she said, FWRA companies recycled nearly 94 percent of their food waste generated from manufacturing and last year donated over 800 million pounds of food to food banks.

Still, she said, “Industry cannot solve this problem alone. Consumers are responsible for 44 percent of food waste sent to landfills. If we're going to make a serious dent in food waste as a nation, we need to find was to help consumers reduce waste.”

The other witnesses were Jesse Fink, managing director of Mission Point in Norwalk, Connecticut, and Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America, in Chicago.

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