Proposed Law Would Cut Back on Food Waste From Farm to Fridge
It has been nearly four years since the Natural Resources Defense Council published its landmark study on food waste in the United States. The exhaustive look at all the perfectly edible food that ends up in landfills—trashed on the farm or in the grocery store or left to rot in your fridge—found that 40 percent of what the country produces goes to waste. That figure has been trotted out regularly in the years since, as the United Nations, the European Union, and finally, the United States have rolled out plans for reducing food waste, which causes a tremendous loss of natural resources the world over. The number was cited again on Monday when Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, announced at a press conference in Portland federal legislation aimed at reducing food waste throughout the economy.
"Wasted food costs us over $160 billion a year in this country," Pingree said in a statement. "That works out to about $125 a month for a family of four. We can save money and feed more Americans if we reduce the amount of food that ends up getting sent to landfills."
While the draft legislation of the Food Recovery Act has yet to be made public, Pingree promises “nearly two dozen provisions to reduce food waste across the economy,” including efforts to reform how the sell-by dates printed on food packaging are determined. Contrary to popular belief, the dates are included on product labels “so that you can have the peak consumer experience with it,” Dana Gunders, a food-waste expert at NRDC, told TakePart in 2013—not to tell people when the food will be spoiled. “No one is pretending that you can’t eat that product after the date—that it’s bad, that it’s going to make you sick.” So instead of language that could be construed as indicating food that is rotten, Pingree’s bill would change the label to read “Best If Used By” and require a line that reads “Manufacturer’s Suggestion Only,” according to Politico.
Other provisions include tax breaks for farmers and retailers for putting "ugly" produce on the market—either through sales or donations—instead of trashing it, as the Portland Press Herald reported in October after Pingree announced plans for the bill at The New York Times' "Food for Tomorrow" conference. Fruits and vegetables believed to be less aesthetically pleasing are routinely trashed before they even get to market—a significant contributor to the food-waste problem. The paper reported that the bill would also reform school lunch programs to make it easier to acquire imperfect fruits and vegetables.
In September, the Obama administration set a goal to cut U.S. food waste in half over the next 15 years, an ambitious time line that the U.N. later extended to countries across the globe. But without a law on the books, the government will have to pursue that goal through partnerships with "charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, the private sector, and local, state, and tribal governments to reduce food loss and waste in order to improve overall food security and conserve our nation's natural resources," as a USDA press release announcing the goals read.
Pingree's bill would put some teeth behind efforts to cut food waste—if it can get through a deeply divided Congress. Controversial legislation is notoriously difficult to get passed in an election year, but perhaps the possibility of saving billions of dollars annually, as many continue to suffer the lingering effects of the Great Recession, will be something Washington can agree on.