Provisions expected to be in a new farm bill are designed to reduce the nation's food waste by encouraging more growers as well as processors and retailers to donate ugly produce and surplus commodities that would otherwise be discarded.

Among the provisions is one inserted in the House-passed farm bill to create a food waste liaison at USDA. The liaison’s specific duties would include raising awareness of the 22-year-old Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which provides liability protection for companies that donate food. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted every year. 

No federal agency was put in charge of carrying out the law, and a 2016 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard University Food Law and Policy Clinic said that void means there is no one responsible for promoting the Emerson law’s benefits or to issue guidelines for potential donors to follow. 

Without agency guidance, “donors do not know how to interpret some of the act’s more ambiguous terms, such as ‘apparently wholesome,' ‘needy individual,’ and ‘gross negligence,’” which determine whether donations are eligible for liability protection, the NRDC report said. 

The USDA liaison also would be charged with recommending further measures that should be taken to reduce food waste. 

Other provisions that nutrition groups believe will make it into the final farm bill could provide direct financial incentives for donations. Both the House and Senate versions of the bills sought to use The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to cover farmers' costs when they want to give food banks commodities that can't be sold. 

The idea is modeled in part after the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System, which is funded at $1.5 million a year though the state agriculture department. The commodities that have been donated to the state’s food banks include apples that didn’t meet supermarket standards for appearance; potatoes; surplus milk, which was processed into cheese; and surplus organic eggs. Other donated commodities have included green beans, ground beef, lettuce, peaches, pears, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, yogurt, and zucchini. 

The program is “great for families in need because it provides them with fresh nutritious Pennsylvania-grown product, but it’s also great for Pennsylvania farmers especially when they’re facing an oversupply,” said Jane Clements-Smith, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, the state network of food banks. 

The authors of the farm bill TEFAP provisions include Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Glenn Thompson, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition subcommittee. Casey said establishing food recovery networks is “an important step in combating food waste and will help both our farmers and those most in need.”

Rep. Glenn 'GT' Thompson

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.

The House version of the bill included more funding than the Senate version for expanding food donations through TEFAP. However, that funding largely came from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that are unlikely to make it into the compromise farm bill, said a source familiar with the issue. 

Surplus milk also could get special attention in the final farm bill. The Senate version would create a Milk Donation Program to replace the existing Dairy Product Donation Program. 

Under the proposed new program, farmers, cooperatives and processors that participate in the milk marketing order system could give surplus milk to public and private nonprofit groups and get reimbursed for the costs of the donation. The participating farmers and processors would have to provide USDA with donation and distribution plans. The donated milk could not be re-sold.

So far, Congress has largely stayed out of another major issue that experts say is driving food waste in the United States - consumer confusion about sell-by and use-by dates - and retailers and food manufacturers would like to keep the government away.

In 2016, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued guidance encouraging the food industry to label its products “Best if Used By” given dates, “because research shows that this phrase is easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality, rather than safety.”

But food retailers and manufacturers might instead suggest adding two dates to packaging: one to note the optimum quality window for a product, another to note when concerns should arise about its safety.

While there are no federal mandates on dates attached to products – with the exception of infant formula – states have addressed the issue on their own. That adds another impetus outside of waste reduction goals: synchronization of requirements across the country would make sense.

“The more clear we can be for consumers, the more they can know if they can use the product past the date stated,” Cary Frye, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association, told Agri-Pulse.

Last year, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute launched an effort to narrow things down from more than 10 different labels to just two: “BEST if Used By” to describe product quality and “USE by” to address safety concerns with perishable products.

“We want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers clearly understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible,” Leslie Sarasin, FMI president and CEO, said in February 2017 when the initiative was announced.

This is a voluntary effort, and one the groups hope will have enough staying power to prevent government action.

“Our goal is to have it be voluntary,” Frye said. “But if they were to enact regulations, we would say they should be supporting a mandatory safety date for specific foods, and they would need to establish those criteria.”

Photo by the EPA. 

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