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Congress is considering a law that would standardize expiration dates, potentially saving tremendous amounts of food.

Gillie Houston
May 20, 2016

The standard supermarket aisle is a complicated sea of by by bys—"sell by," "best by," "use by"—but a new bill introduced into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday aims to untangle the convoluted expiration label web. The legislation, which will standardize food labeling on a federal level, is being introduced as a hopeful solution to America's growing food waste problem.

"Contrary to popular belief, expiration date labels often don't indicate whether food is still safe to eat. As a result, we are tossing massive amounts of perfectly good food in the trash," says Dana Gunders, author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook and Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This bill will help clarify the true meaning of the dates on food labels... so we can keep more on our plates and out of the landfill."

Studies show that up to 90 percent of Americans throw away perfectly safe food prematurely due to misinterpretations of expiration date labels. This has contributed to the massive amount of food that is wasted in the U.S. every year—$162 billion worth, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That means an average cost of $1,500 a year for every American family for wasted food.

Last fall, the Obama administration set a goal to reduce U.S. food waste by 50 percent nationwide by 2030, and those who are backing the new bill believe it will be a big step towards hitting that target. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, who introduced The Food Labeling Act with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, proposes a more uniform labeling system to help confront the issue of consumer confusion.

This new system, which would be regulated on a national level, would have just two labels—one that indicates when food is at its highest quality, and another that indicates when the food is no longer safe to eat.

"It's time to... end the confusion and stop throwing away perfectly good food," Pingree says. Currently, there are no federal standards for food labels—with the exception of infant formula—which has lead to the confounding and inconsistent state of food labeling today.

Pingree and his legislative colleagues are hoping with stricter guidelines and more universal language, they can help to curb food waste one wrongfully tossed jar, can, or bag at a time.