Food Expiration Dates: Their Time has Come

Do. Not. Throw. That. Away. That milk, meat, egg, pasta, leftover is probably still safe to eat…really. That date on your food container has nothing to do with food safety. You will not expire if your expiration date has passed. Comforting, right?

The fact is, there is no standard or regulation to food labeling. Back in January we posted a blog on the meaning of food labeling dates, where we explained the current labeling system that is generally geared toward letting the retailer know when to remove items from shelves. Forward thinking food retailers work with food rescue organizations like Table to Table to bring this perfectly good food to families and communities that do not have access to healthy, nutritious ingredients. Communities in large cities that are food deserts, like Newark and Paterson, find it difficult to get access to food. According to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group, a food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Food rescue helps to mitigate the need with the help of retail partners.

Despite the Good Samaritan Law’s protections and some individual state laws regarding donating food passed the package dates, the confusion around date labeling hinders both the consumer, retailers, manufacturers, restaurants and other would-be donors from succinctly managing their food costs and food waste. But it appears help is on the way.

The current administration set a 2030 goal for the US to reduce food waste by 50%, a new bill proposed in May by Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, who introduced The Food Labeling Act, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, proposes a more uniform labeling system to help confront the issue of consumer confusion and will help consumers have a better understanding of the safety of their food.

“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.”

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. So simple! The bill would also require the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to compile a list of products that should have expiration dates, including deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses and prepared foods that could become unsafe if kept too long. The act would also prohibit states from preventing stores or manufacturers from donating products for which the quality period has passed. This puts more food in the hands of those in need by allowing food rescue organizations access to more food. Table to Table delivers food to our agencies the same day it’s picked up giving our recipient agencies ample time to prepare and serve it.

The bill is simple in structure but acts on a number of areas in the food supply chain. It is supported by large food companies like General Mills and Campbell’s, top chefs like Tom Colicchio (2001 Table to Table honoree) along with many others, nonprofit organizations, retailers, and legislators. It’s an impressive collaboration. If passed, companies would have two years to comply with the new standards.

Reducing food waste and giving nonprofit organizations, like Table to Table, access to more of the perfectly good food that is thrown away daily will go a long way to reducing food insecurity. As benefits for programs like welfare and SNAP are cut, under-served communities will need our help more and more. Feeding neighbors is essential to health and well-being and our future, and this small change in food labeling, will have far-reaching impact. We look forward to working with our partners to bring more good food to the communities and families we serve.


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