Advocates see the legislation as a long-needed step to reduce food waste. Confusion over date labeling leads to about 10% of food waste in the United States. This often means that consumers are throwing away good food. This waste increases the production of greenhouse gases and environmental degradation, while driving up food prices.
Since 2016, Pingree and Blumenthal have repeatedly sponsored versions of the food labeling bill. However, they faced opposition from the food industry. The Food Waste Reduction Alliance – an industry group funded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association – insists that government-mandated date labeling is not the solution. They argue that private voluntary industry initiatives would work better. The two sides also disagree on how much food waste is the consumer’s responsibility.
This struggle echoes one 50 years ago, when food prices sparked consumer uneasiness over packaged foods and unclear labelling. This battle has highlighted how retailers, manufacturers, consumers and regulators often have different ideas about what information should appear on food labels. This indicates that consumer activism could win the fight again in 2023, which history also suggests will lead to much more useful labels.
Date labeling on foods dates back to the 1910s, when dairy producers introduced “use by” labels for consumers – visible dates on foods to indicate how quickly they would spoil after purchase. However, these labels remained limited to specific perishable foods such as dairy and baked goods.
In the 1930s, manufacturers introduced a second type of food date label, intended for grocers, not consumers. These “sell by” tags were used for in-store purposes, with a coded system that gave grocery workers a sell-by date, which helped them manage inventory rotation.
This remained the system until 1969.
By this time, most Americans were buying their food at supermarkets, a new form of “self-service” retail centered on packaged foods whose freshness was difficult to judge. Activists began to question why supermarkets had access to expiration dates for this commodity and consumers did not.
A group of housewives began to systematically record the numbers of certain foods and when these foods were replenished. Once they “cracked” the code for a product like peanut butter, they would sabotage old packaging so the expired peanut butter could not be sold. They called themselves the “Code Breakers”, publishing a book of codes which they sold nationally by mail order under the more serious name, National Consumers United. Historian Emily Twarog has written about how these Code Breakers were part of a long tradition of housewives who became activists pushing supermarkets to meet consumer demands. The media attention his codebook generated led more innovative supermarkets to introduce dates in the early 1970s that customers could read and understand.
The fight for food labels that customers could understand was just one front in a broader battle over how to protect consumers in the new packaged food economy. In 1967, in response to the misunderstanding about the amount of food contained in a package, Congress passed the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which required packaged foods to disclose the liquid content. Consumer advocates also lobbied supermarkets to introduce unit prices – shelf labels that provided price by weight or by volume that made it easier for shoppers to make value comparisons across different products.
In 1973, the Food and Drug Administration revised its food labeling rules, introducing a voluntary “Nutrition Facts” label, following the success of several supermarket experiments with nutrition labeling. In some cases, state legislatures have passed laws requiring these consumer-facing labels on food packaging, but efforts to establish national standards have generally remained voluntary.
Most of this debate focused on potentially misleading practices that involved selling food beyond its “peak of freshness” without concerns about food safety or waste.
Indeed, a 1979 Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report noted that date labeling was not directly relevant to food safety. Contamination from improper packaging handling can occur at any point in a product’s lifecycle, including well before the expiration date. The report barely considered the role of date labeling in food waste.
Instead, he argued that date labeling can result in lower food prices, citing experiments with public-facing date labeling where store staff – wanting to avoid losing money because products remained on shelves past the deadline validity – gave more attention to speeding up the sale of products nearing the end of their useful life.
In the 1980s, date labeling became a routine feature on packaged foods; yet, despite dozens of attempts by Congress to pass federal legislation, the food industry has managed to maintain voluntary date labels. (Other countries, including the European Economic Community in 1979, passed laws requiring uniform mandatory date labels.)
But the lack of a federal standard led to the proliferation of different date labels that created the confusion that can plague consumers today. As stores adjusted from coded labels that consumers couldn’t understand to clearer date labels, they simply stamped the retailer’s calculated use-by date on the package. The Department of Agriculture also requires “pack by” dates on poultry products: eggs, for example, carry dates for when they are placed in the box. Perishable dairy products continued to have use-by dates for when they could start to spoil, while cereal brands, with longer shelf life, developed another type of date label: “best if used sooner”, which guaranteed quality if the product was consumed before that date.
None of them told Americans what they really wanted to know: after what date should they not eat a food?
The food industry justified this confusion by the technical difficulty of establishing the expiry date for different foods. Potentially relevant factors ranged from sensory quality to nutrient loss and perishability time. A food can taste rancid but still be nutritious and safe, for example.
Data labeling of packaged foods highlights what geographer Susanne Freidberg argues is a strange paradox of modern food markets: What makes a food “fresh” after it has been processed, packaged or refrigerated? Recently, companies have even explored “Freeze By” dates to encourage freezing foods to maintain peak “freshness”.
Political interest in date labeling resurfaced in the early 2000s, but this time in connection with growing concern about the environmental costs of our packaged food economy and efforts to promote sustainability and, more recently, a circular economy, which has become strives to keep materials, products and services in circulation for as long as possible. Environmentalists, consumer advocates and regulators have been exploring how to rephrase date labels to encourage consumers to hold food for as long as possible, up to a “use by” or “freeze by” date, rather than err on the side of throwing out the food. prematurely.
Can a government-mandated date label work in the consumer’s interest? For a product category, it already has. In 1985, the Food and Drug Administration established what is currently the only federally mandated food expiration date: an expiration date for all infant formula.
Is it possible to introduce uniform date labels on many types of food? History suggests so. Despite strong resistance from the food industry, the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act of 1990 (NLEA) mandated that a “Nutrition Facts” label appear on all packaged foods.
These past cases indicate that if Congress passes the Food Labeling Act, it will be easier for consumers to determine what date they should eat food before it becomes unsafe. This will cut down on mess and hopefully food waste. This will benefit the environment and may also reduce prices. The real question is whether Congress can overcome industry opposition and pass the bill.