An Expiration to Food Date Confusion

For immediate release:
  • Joel Price
  • (805) 370-0542

SACRAMENTO – Legislation advanced this week from Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin that would allow consumers to get the most out of their groceries by mandating a uniform set of date label phrases on packaged food. Assembly Bill (AB) 660 will cut down on consumer confusion caused by array of date label phrases and their various meanings, which often result in edible food being thrown out prematurely. AB 660 passed out of Assembly Health Committee on Tuesday, April 25th, and out of Assembly Agriculture Committee in February.

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

Voluntary standards were established in 2017 with AB 954 (Chiu), however recent studies reveal low implementation rates that contradict the 2020 goals promised by industry. AB 660 would require “BEST if Used by” or “BEST if Used or Frozen by” to indicate the quality date of a product, and “USE by” or “USE by or Freeze by” to indicate the safety date of the product. The use of consumer-facing “Sell By” dates would be prohibited to prevent confusion over labels used for store stock rotation.

The FDA estimates that up to a fifth of food waste is caused by the misunderstanding consumers experience trying to parse the meaning of the numerous date label phrases that can be found in their fridge. Some 50 different phrases can be found on food products nationwide - simplifying these would allow households to get the most out of their food, saving both money and natural resources. A ReFED study found that per year, this strategy could save 265 billion gallons of water and divert 796,000 tons of food waste from landfills throughout the country.

Reducing the stream of food waste being landfilled is crucial to greenhouse gas reduction goals. "About six million tons of food are wasted in California each year, much of which rots in landfills and creates harmful methane emissions,” said Gracyna Mohabir, Policy Associate at Californians Against Waste, one of the bill’s sponsors. “The standards set in this bill take a step towards meeting California's climate goals by tackling the impacts food waste has on climate change.” Californians Against Waste is an environmental nonprofit that advocates for waste and recycling legislation.

The bill is also sponsored by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), an international nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. “Addressing so-called ‘expiration date’ labels, a surprisingly substantial systemic cause of food waste, will help our environment, our health, and our economy. Despite past measures, confusion over the dates on food is still leading to an enormous amount of wasted food. Eliminating confusion over whether food is still good will help keep food in our cupboards and out the garbage thereby saving us money as well, ” said Andrea Collins, Senior Sustainable Food Systems Specialist.

The push for simple, easy-to-understand terms reflects the standards proposed in the federal Food Date Labeling Act of 2021. Internationally, grocery store chains across the UK have dropped certain phrases featured on their products in a push to reduce customer waste, and packaged food in the EU is required to feature one of two set phrases. The Consumer Goods Forum, a global organization including roughly 400 major companies, also supported standardization.

AB 660 would allow California to pave the way for food waste prevention at a national level while helping the state achieve key waste reduction and climate targets.