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Congress, FDA take action with food and menu labeling changes

Recent legislation could increase consumer awareness, decrease food waste.

Feb 07, 2017

Sponsored by DayMark

Legislation introduced into both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate is seeking to ease Americans' confusion about whether or not their food is safe.

The Food Date Labeling Act of 2016 aims to establish a uniform national food date labeling  system which,  advocates  maintain,  would reduce uncertainty among consumers, manufacturers, retailers and restaurateurs. They say it also would simplify regulatory compliance for companies and reduce food waste and costs.

Proponents of the act say widespread confusion over the nation's current date labeling policies accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer waste of safe edible food, which leads to about $29 billion of wasted spending each year.

Any packaged food that carries a date with regard to freshness or expiration would be impacted by the law, if passed.

Introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal,  D-Connecticut,

 the act would supersede the current USDA “Guidance” for change, which is voluntary, says Nancy Farrell, national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and political action committee past chair.

“This bill hopes to establish a national system which would enable a consumer to distinguish between when a food is at peak quality or beyond that date where food safety would be of concern,” Farrell says.

The legislation also calls for consumer education on the issue in order to ensure a proper understanding of the new labeling system.

Late last year the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service also sought to increase consistency and reduce confusion by suggesting that food packaging employ a standardized “Best if Used By” date label.

Although the Food Date Labeling bills officially expired when the 115th Congress convened in January 2017, Rep. Pingree's office says she plans to reintroduce the House bill this year. Sen. Blumenthal had not released an official statement concerning the legislation at press time, but Joe Kefauver, managing partner of Align Public Strategies, speculates that “component pieces” of the legislation also might possibly be attached to the new farm bill, which is expected to be introduced this year.

Standardized language

Currently, food manufacturers and purveyors use such loosely defined and interchangeable terms as “sell-by,” “best by,” “use by,” “enjoy by” and “best before.” Most of these printed dates, however, represent a food item’s peak freshness, not the edibility of the item. The proposed federal legislation would standardize the food date labeling that consumers see nationwide on food packages.

Under the Food Date Labeling Act “all food items would be required to post two dates: one to show when food is at its highest quality and the other to show when it has expired,” says Jill Carte, category manager of food safety for DayMark Safety Systems.

“Best if used by” will indicate peak quality for foods that are shelf-stable, while “Expires on” will be used for foods that have an increased need for food safety measures, such as meats, fish and eggs, says Farrell.

A uniform federal policy would standardize the patchwork quilt of inconsistent food labeling regulations across the country, says the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Under the current system some 41 states and localities employ their own, individual food labeling guidelines, which contribute to the confusion with regard to date label vocabulary and make compliance difficult, the act's proponents say.

Foodservice benefits

The legislation also is expected to aid those in the foodservice industry. “Restaurants will benefit the same as consumers,” says DayMark's Carte. “Food costs could potentially be driven down by the more accurate labeling, which will reduce the amount of waste. Any growing pains foodservice establishments could suffer would be minimized since restaurants have been using date labeling for years, so they already have an understanding of the concept. As support for the bills has been overwhelming, foodservice operators should begin preparing for change now.”

Brian Bachman, vice president of purchasing at Metz Culinary Management, says the Dallas, Pennsylvania-based dining management services company supports the legislation, noting it “is good for the foodservice industry because it provides transparency to our guests and allows them to make informed decisions  about what they are eating.”

Bachman says the company's ready-to-eat — or grab n' go — foods would come under the purview of the act, if it is passed. “Depending on how the freshly prepared foods are served — grab n’ go or full service — would indicate whether or not they would be impacted by the regulations,” he adds.

In the meantime, Metz is in the process of implementing changes to accommodate the Food and Drug Administration's federal menu labeling rules, which are set to take effect in May. “All of Metz Culinary Management’s “Up For Grabs” (grab n’ go) items will be properly labeled and include item name, price, prep and expiration date, nutrition facts, ingredients and allergens,” Bachman says. “Metz Culinary Management has partnered with DayMark Safety Systems and their labeling machine [the DayMark 9700 and DayMark PRO] to meet the needs of these upcoming federal regulations.”

Meanwhile, others in the foodservice industry are voicing their support for the Food Date Labeling bill. “Having no uniform date labels on food hurts our economy,” says celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a  multi-unit restaurateur and head judge on Bravo’s hit reality cooking series “Top Chef.” “It burdens businesses with inconsistent regulations and causes tremendous consumer confusion about food safety that results in perfectly good food ending up in the trash.

“I applaud Sen. Blumenthal and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing common sense legislation to standardize sell-by date labels,” Colicchio says. “These simple changes will make drastic improvements and help strengthen America's food system.”