(Photo by Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)

OK … a quick pop quiz. Americans waste a lot of food. Which of the following statements are true?

  • The good ol’ USA throws away more food annually than almost any other nation — between 125 and 160 billion (yeah with a B) pounds.
  • Food is the single-largest component taking up space inside U.S. landfills, making up roughly 22% of municipal solid waste.
  • Annual food waste in the USA translates to 30% to 40% of the total food supply.
  • Uneaten food in America contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people each year.

These are all true statements. What it all says about us as a nation is fodder for another day, but no one would argue all that wasted food is a good thing. And that lowering the U.S. and, for that matter, world food waste isn’t a worthy goal.

Of course reducing food waste starts at home — yours and mine. But if you’re like me, food expiration labels provide more puzzlement than clarity. Just what the heck do these all really mean? “Use By?” “Expires On?” “Use Before?” “Sell By?” “Best If Used By/Before?” “Expiration Date?” Good gosh ball of confusion. And most folks agree that all that confusion leads to perfectly good food going into the dumpster by the semi-truck load.

All this labeling mayhem is only possible because there are no, none, nada, zero federal regulations for product dating beyond those controlling infant formula.

From time to time, the Food Safety and Inspection Service acknowledges there is a problem and makes available a food dating fact sheet. In 2019, the FSIS went so far as to file notice in the Federal Register making the case to food producers to switch to using a “Best If Used By” label because “research shows that this phrase is easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality rather than safety.”

But that’s a long way from an actual regulation with well-defined parameters. So what you’re left with is a patchwork of states coming up with their own food expiration guidelines.

Hello, California. The Golden State’s legislature has a new food labeling bill on its plate this session. AB 660 requires all food manufactures — in state and out of state — wishing to sell food in California to use either “Best If Used By” or “USE By” labels.

And before you scream that California can’t possibly require out-of-state food manufactures to comply with the potential state law, I give you National Pork Producers v. Ross. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May on California’s Proposition 12, a law requiring pork sold in California to come from pigs birthed by sows housed in 24 square feet of living space. The law was judged constitutionally sound on narrow grounds that it did not run afoul of the dormant Commerce Clause because it treated in-state and out-of-state pork producers equally.

That sounds a whole lot like California’s proposed AB 660.

Perhaps it’s enough to light a fire under Congress to pass the Food Date Labeling Act of 2023. The proposed bill would standardize food expiration labels:

“‘BEST If Used By’ communicates to consumers that the quality of the food product may begin to deteriorate after the date, and ‘USE By’ communicates the end of the estimated period of shelf life, after which the product should not be consumed. Under the bill, food manufacturers can decide which of their products carry a quality date or a discard date. It also allows food to be sold or donated after its labeled quality date, helping more food reach those who need it.”

That’s a welcome step in the right direction. And it’s relatively painless low hanging fruit for food producers to comply.

Yeah, I imagine there are some food manufactures not overly pleased with California’s labeling doings. But given the staggering food waste in this country the problem can no longer be ignored.

Type of work:

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

David Dickey always wanted to be a journalist. After serving tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, Dickey enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College in Rockford, Ill., where he was first news editor...