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Banning “Sell By” date on food gets wide support

Most consumers believe “sell by” dates are mandated by the federal government but they’re not for most foods. Now, California may join the effort to ban “sell by” in an effort to stop needless dumping of good food and saving unknowing consumers billions of dollars.  The bill is currently under review and has already passed two legislative committees.

Existing law requires food—such as eggs and produce—to be tagged with “sell by” stickers for distributors or retailers to know when to stock the items. However, according to Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), they are confusing and lead to unnecessary food waste. The stamped dates means 20 percent of all food ends up as waste. According to the Department of Agriculture, $1 trillion is spent on food annually. That means $200 billion is wasted by dumping food.

Critics of “sell by” dates say they are arbitrary, not based on science or food safety, and primarily used to increase food sales by manufacturers. The dates didn’t come into popularity until the 1960s when mass-produced and processed foods began filling shelves. Consumers began to be confused by conflicting dates of “sell by” and other date labeling added by manufacturers for no apparent reason. Up until that time, consumers were believed to be savvy enough to tell if food had spoiled. The dates have been a boon to food manufacturers, increasing profits with little to no effort other than putting a stamp on a can.

“They read these dates and then they assume that it’s bad, they can’t eat it and they toss it, when these dates don’t actually mean that they’re not edible or they’re not still nutritious or tasty,” said Patty Apple, a manager at Food Shift, an Alameda, California, nonprofit that collects and uses expired or imperfect foods.

Assembly Bill 660, authored by Irwin would set new standards by requiring expiration labels to use the phrases “best if used by” and “use by” to communicate peak freshness and food safety, and completely ban the terminology of “sell by” dates, starting January of 2025.

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“We have all opened our fridge or pantry and had to wonder whether our food is still good. AB 660 will eliminate confusion with food labeling and reduce food waste, saving consumers money and meaningfully impacting climate change,” Irwin said in a May 2 press release.

Irwin cited data from the Food and Drug Administration in the news release, that confusion caused by current date stickers causes around 20 percent of food waste.

She pointed to a study released in April by ReFED—a national nonprofit working to cut food waste—which found that changing the labeling system could save 265 billion gallons of water and stop 796,000 tons of food waste from entering landfills nationwide per year.

The goal in passing the bill, according to Irwin, is to fight climate change by lessening the amount of food that ultimately ends up in such landfills. Such decomposing food emits methane gas, which is over 80 times more powerful than greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

“About six million tons of food are wasted in California each year, much of which rots in landfills and creates harmful methane emissions,” Gracyna Mohabir, Policy Associate at Californians Against Waste—a nonprofit advocate for waste and recycling legislation and one of the bill’s sponsors—said in the press release.

Another sponsor for the bill is the Natural Resources Defense Council—an international nonprofit environmental organization.

“Addressing so-called ‘expiration date’ labels, a surprisingly substantial systemic cause of food waste, will help our environment, our health, and our economy,” Andrea Collins, Senior Sustainable Food Systems Specialist for the nonprofit, said in the same press release. “Despite past measures, confusion over the dates on food is still leading to an enormous amount of wasted food.”

Fortune Magazine reports that, “since 2019, the Food and Drug Administration — which regulates around 80% of U.S. food — has recommended that manufacturers use the labels “best if used by” for freshness and “use by” for perishable goods, based on surveys showing that consumers understand those phrases.

“Most people believe that if it says ‘sell by,’ ‘best by’ or ‘expiration,’ you can’t eat any of them. That’s not actually accurate,” Richard Lipsit, who owns a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, California, told Fortune.

–Dwight Widaman and wire services



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