RELEASE: Ahead of Memorial Day, Gottheimer Announces “Fixing Food Labeling Plan” to Address Misleading and Unscientific Food Date Labels

Fighting to Help Families Save on Groceries & Reduce Waste. Food Manufacturers’ Date Labels Are Costing Families, Local Grocers, Restaurants, & Food Banks.

May 22, 2023
Press

Above: Gottheimer at Stew Leonard’s in Paramus announcing his “Fixing Food Labeling Plan” to standardize food date labels to reduce waste and help families save money on groceries.

PARAMUS, NJ — Today, May 22, 2023, at Stew Leonard’s in Paramus ahead of Memorial Day, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) joined with food security advocates, food waste experts, nutritionists, and local grocers to announce his “Fixing Food Labeling Plan” to address unclear and sometimes misleading date labeling on groceries and products from manufacturers. Unclear food labels are forcing families and stores to throw out food before they need to. 

Increased unnecessary food waste is resulting in families having to buy groceries more often, it is making business more costly for restaurants and local grocery stores, it is killing the environment, and food banks and charitable organizations are receiving less donations.

Gottheimer’s “Fixing Food Labeling Plan” includes:

  • Gottheimer is sending a letter today to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging them to issue new, national guidance on food date labeling and the science behind those dates to provide desperately needed clarity to families and reduce food waste at our supermarkets, restaurants, and in our pantries at home. Food manufacturers cannot be allowed to decide what date they want to put on the package. 
  • Gottheimer is helping lead the bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act to establish an easy-to-understand, uniform food date labeling system. This legislation will also allow food to be sold or donated after a “best if used by” date, helping more perfectly good food reach those who need it. Legislation is required so that no future Administrations can roll back food date labeling standards.

Statistics on food waste and date label confusion:

  • USDA reports that, every year, more than 30% of our national food supply is lost or wasted because of consumer confusion over the true meaning of date labels displayed on packaged food. 
  • Up to 90% of Americans throw away food prematurely because of confusion over date labels. 
  • Every year, families in the United States waste more than 160 billion pounds, or $218 billion dollars’ worth of food.
  • New Jersey’s discarded food costs $10 billion a year. With 9.2 million residents, that averages out to about $1,080 dollars per person.

“Because of the lack of standardization for food labels, food manufacturers can pick a random, unscientific date and game the system to prompt quicker removal of products from shelves. That costs all of us here at our local grocers, restaurants, leads to consumer confusion, and billions of pounds of unnecessary waste,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “We can help not only reduce costs for families, but also for grocery stores and restaurants — and reduce waste, help the environment, and support harder-pressed families all at the same time. That’s why we are here today, ahead of Memorial Day, a big barbecue and food weekend, to discuss unclear and sometimes misleading date labeling on groceries and products from manufacturers that are forcing families and stores to throw out food before they need to.”

Gottheimer continued, “As part of my ‘Fixing Food Labeling Plan,’ I’m calling for new action that would require food and beverage manufacturers across the country to put real science behind the dates they pick and standardize the dates that they put on their cans, packages, bags, and the like. No more of these confusing labels, or no labels at all.”

“A lot of food gets thrown out before the expiration date. It’s a confusing issue and I think education is a big thing … and hopefully we’ll cut down food waste across the country and work on some legislation,” said Stew Leonard’s President and CEO Stew Leonard, Jr.

“In the U.S., most food waste occurs at the consumer level, meaning when we get food at home. That is why The Food Date Labeling Act is so important; it will go a long way in making date labels less confusing for consumers and reducing food waste. While the food industry has tried to make it clear, we need action from the federal government to standardize language and develop educational materials to help consumers make the best decision for both their health and the planet’s health. We were so happy to see the changes in the nutrition fact label to support more transparency and improve consumer discussion-making; it’s time we do the same thing with food date labels,” Sara Elnakib of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

“Food waste continues to be one of the most pressing, yet solvable, challenges of our time. Academy members are uniquely positioned in communities across the country to influence consumer and institutional habits related to food safety and food waste. The Academy appreciates the leadership of U.S. Rep. Gottheimer for championing efforts to standardize date labeling for quality and safety across products and educate the public on the new ­system. This is a necessary step in addressing waste throughout the country’s entire food supply,” said Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics President Ellen R. Shanley.

“Better food labeling will reduce food waste and improve informed consumers choice. We applaud Congressman Gottheimer for leading on this important issue,” said CEO of Hunger Free America Joel Berg.

“New Jersey’s Community Colleges are committed to addressing food insecurity for their students and in their communities. To further this goal, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges supports Congressman Gottheimer’s efforts to reduce food waste by encouraging the FDA and the USDA to improve food labeling. We thank Congressman Gottheimer for his leadership on this important issue,” said New Jersey Council of County Colleges President Aaron Fichtner.

“According to the USDA, 31% of food from retail stores, restaurants, and homes goes uneaten, wasting valuable resources and worsening food security. Plate waste is also prevalent in schools, although the nutrition standards have helped reduce this issue. By implementing policies such as standardized food labels, funding school food waste audits and education, and providing guidance on school meal time duration, we can divert millions of tons from landfills and achieve significant financial benefits. We commend Congressman Gottheimer for highlighting the crucial role of labeling in addressing this matter,” said NEA Director and President of the Bergen County Education Association Sue McBride.

“Everyone has stood in front of their open fridge and been confronted with the decision on whether to eat or toss food because of a date on its packing. Right now, we have an opportunity to address one of the leading drivers of food waste in this country – confusion around food date labels – through the bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act. It is a straightforward, common-sense solution that will keep more money in people’s pockets and food on people’s plates, and this is the year we must get it done,” said Natural Resources Defense Council Director of Food Waste Yvette Cabrera. 

Gottheimer was joined by Stew Leonard’s President and CEO Stew Leonard, Jr., Rutgers Climate Institute’s Sara Elnakib, New Jersey Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ April Milevski, Bergen County Commissioner Tracy Zur, Bergen County Commissioner Germaine Oritz, and Bergen County Commissioner Rafael Marte.

Watch today’s announcement here.

Below: Gottheimer at Stew Leonard’s in Paramus announcing his “Fixing Food Labeling Plan” to standardize food date labels to reduce waste and help families save money on groceries.

Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good morning, it’s great to be back in Paramus at Stew Leonard’s! I love this place. 

I want to thank Stew Leonard, Jr. for welcoming us here today – and I know, like a lot of people, we are thinking about your dad. His idea clearly lives on with you, and the team, and, after fifty years, Stew Leonard’s continues to be a fantastic family-owned business with great products from across the country — and a ton of fun. 

But, as hard as you work at it, like most grocery stores, things are a bit more expensive than before the pandemic. 

We need to be doing everything we can to get those prices down and make life more affordable, and it’s why some of us have been so focused on addressing supply chain issues and avoiding a collapse of the debt ceiling. Then there are other issues that have been sitting right in front of us for decades that could help not only reduce costs for families, but also for grocery stores and restaurants — and reduce waste, help the environment, and support harder-pressed families all at the same time. 

That’s why we are here today, ahead of Memorial Day, a big barbecue and food weekend, to discuss unclear and sometimes misleading date labeling on groceries and products from manufacturers, that are forcing families and stores to throw out food before they need to.

We’ve all been there. We check out the date on a box of cereal, canned baked beans, a ketchup bottle, a soda can or chips. The date is expired or close to it, and we think, oh well, we have to throw it out. 

The statistics are staggering. USDA reports that, every year, more than 30 percent of our national food supply is lost or wasted because of consumer confusion over the true meaning of date labels displayed on packaged food. 

Up to 90 percent of Americans throw away food prematurely because of confusion over date labels. 

Every year, families in the United States waste more than 160 billion pounds, or $218 billion dollars’ worth of food, including tossing 3.3 billion pounds of food into the trash right here in Jersey. 

New Jersey’s discarded food costs $10 billion a year. With 9.2 million residents, that averages out down to about $1,080 dollars per person. That’s insane. 

Unclear and inconsistent food labeling is hurting families’ pocketbooks because they have to buy more groceries more often. It’s making business more costly for restaurants and local grocery stores. It’s killing the environment. And, it’s taking food away from hard-pressed, hungry children and families who could use that food prematurely headed for the waste bin, that still might be good. 

So, here’s the obvious question — who decides the dates on those packages or cans? Is it based on the work of scientists in a lab? 

Well, first, there is no national standard. Every state decides for themselves. That means that some states only have labels on certain products with terms like “sell by” or “freshest on.” New Jersey’s health department sets the standard for dairy and shellfish.

Beyond that, New Jersey does not require date labels on food products, and it’s up to the manufacturer — up to their whim and so-called scientific decision making. That doesn’t sound like a good system. What’s insane is that, besides infant formula, there is no consistency state-by-state when it comes to date labels on foods. What’s even more surprising is that there are no federal regulations for it either.

Because of the lack of standardization for food labels, food manufacturers can pick a random, unscientific date and game the system to prompt quicker removal of products from shelves. 

That costs all of us here at our local grocers, restaurants, leads to consumer confusion, and billions of pounds of unnecessary waste. 

This ineffective, current state-by-state regulatory patchwork has also led to 2.73 million metric tons in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions and 162 billion gallons of water wasted annually — not to mention lots of the increased waste to our landfills, and lots of hungry people who could be eating the food we are throwing away. 

Grocery stores are losing money because these labels, especially on non-perishable goods, leave them discarding perfectly good products and lead customers to believe the food is bad — even though it’s perfectly edible and safe!

You’re telling me that recently purchased rice or a bag of pretzels is dangerous to consume after its “sell-by” shelf-life date? How about your salt and pepper?

And what’s crazy is that today, food banks and charitable organizations aren’t receiving nearly enough donations to keep up with demand. 

This good food is going to waste, and is literally increasing hunger in our communities.  

It makes no sense — I’m doing something about it. 

Today, as part of my “Fixing Food Labeling Plan,” I’m calling for new action that would require food and beverage manufacturers across the country to put real science behind the dates they pick and standardize the dates that they put on their cans, packages, bags, and the like. No more of these confusing labels, or no labels at all. When is the real sell-by date and what is the use by date? Those are two different things. 

First, in a formal letter today, I’m urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue new, national guidance on food date labeling and the science behind those dates to provide desperately needed clarity to families and reduce food waste at our supermarkets, restaurants, and in our pantries at home. We can’t just allow the food manufacturers to decide what date they want to put on the package. We need some standards from the experts. 

This will help keep perfectly edible food in our houses and grocery stores longer and will help food banks access more food to feed those in need. And let me tell you, our food banks always need more on their shelves. 

Second, I’m sponsoring and helping to lead bipartisan legislation called the Food Date Labeling Act to establish an easy-to-understand, uniform food date labeling system. 

This legislation will also allow food to be sold or donated after a “best if used by” date, helping more perfectly good food reach those who need it.

Finally, just a couple years ago, in 2019, the federal government conducted a study on date labels on packaged food. They found that consumers would benefit from the adoption of clear uniform standards across the country that allow them to understand when the products can safely be used and to have confidence that those recommendations are accurate.

That’s why the Administration must take swift action using existing authorities to provide guidance to consumers on food date labeling. This will help families better understand the quality and longevity of the food product and when it is safe to consume.

We need legislation as well so that no future Administrations can roll back food date labeling standards. This shouldn’t be a national, annual guessing game for families, shoppers, and businesses.

As we head into those Memorial Day barbecues, it’s long past time we help our families and businesses save money, protect the environment, and support those in need. 

By working together, Democrats and Republicans, here in the greatest country in the world, there’s no reason why our best days can’t always be ahead of us. Thank you and God bless you.

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