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Food waste bill targets confusing date labels

But will the legislation solve the growing food waste problem in America?

As any consumer will tell you, food expiration dates and labels can be incredibly confusing. Think: Sell by, use by, expires on.

And this isn't just a quirky food marketing problem. Premature tossing of perfectly edible food contributes to Americans wasting up to 50 percent more food than U.S. consumers did in the 1970s, according to National Institutes of Health. And the fallout doesn't end there. Uneaten food is clogging up municipal waste systems and limited landfill space.

On Wednesday, new legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House that would make expiration date labeling more consistent and coherent. The end goal is to help reduce a key trigger of consumer food waste in America.

Woman looking at expiration date for milk
Noel Hendrickson | Getty Images

"A huge number of Americans are confused about the date labels out there," said Dana Gunders, a scientist focused on food and agriculture for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The dates they're navigating by are not meant to indicate the safety of food."

Individual households contribute to more U.S. food waste than restaurants or grocery stores, Gunders said.

The companion bills were introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in the Senate, and by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, in the House. The legislation would establish standard federal rules for dates on food labels.

There are currently no national guidelines for dated food labels — with the exception of infant formula.

Local rules on labeling can vary widely.

Food date labels also reflect food producers' recommendations for when food will be at its best — not when eating the food will no longer be safe. "The date labels are about peak quality and freshness," Gunders said.

"This [legislation] is about reducing the confusion. And the benefit is less food going to waste and saving people money," said Gunders, also author of the "Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook." The book is a practical guide to preserving the shelf life of products, wasting less food and saving money.

Effect of moving away from farms

Part of the problem is consumers who are generally less knowledgeable about food and the best kitchen practices than in prior generations. Families over the decades have moved away from farms and food know-how. A tiny bruise on an apple or speck on a hunk of cheese, and we toss that sucker.

U.S. food loss and waste now accounts for about 31 percent of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers, with far-reaching effects on food security and climate change, according to the USDA.

Food loss and waste is the single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste.

With the need for solutions accelerating, the U.S. in 2015 issued its first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50 percent cut by 2030. Solutions lie in public-private partnerships as well as individual changes in eating and kitchen habits.

And in another twist on the many prongs of the massive agricultural complex, food insecurity is rising in every single county in America as food waste rises across the nation.