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Could better labels make us stop wasting food?

A customer scans the expiration date on gallons of milk sitting on a cooler shelf at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, DC.
A customer scans the expiration date on gallons of milk sitting on a cooler shelf at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Ever wondered what those 'best if used by' dates on your food actually mean? One California lawmaker says not enough people do, and is proposing legislation he hopes will prevent people from throwing out food just because it's passed its 'best by' date.

Last week, Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would limit food manufacturers to one of two options for indicating the expiration dates of food: The “best if used by” label would be used to identify when food is at its best quality and the  “expires on” label would be placed on highly-perishable foods, which would pose a safety risk if consumed after the date indicated.

"The thing about a 'sell by' date is it’s really not meant for consumers to worry about," says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist with the National Resource Defense Council's (NRDC) food and agriculture program. "It’s earlier than a ‘best-by’ or ‘use-by’ date, normally, because it’s telling the grocery store that if you sell the product by this date, the consumer can get it home and have a good shelf life with it."

Gunders says the idea of the bill is to standardize food labeling to eliminate what they see as  the confusion created by the wide variety of arbitrary expiration dates. They argue that commonly used labels such as “best before,” “freshest by” and “sell by,” among a few others are chosen based on a manufacturer's discretion, not federal mandate, and as a result lead many consumers to mistakenly discard edible foods. 

As for whether there will be opposition to the law, Gunders says she can see grocery stores and companies pushing back because it's a state law and they don't want to have to navigate different laws in every state where they operate.

"My response to that is that a federal solution would be wonderful, but we all know how tricky it is to get anything through Congress right now, and California has an ability to set a model for the rest of the nation."

AirTalk reached out to several grocery stores and food manufacturers for their reaction, but none returned our request for comment.

Gunders says regardless of whether the law is passed, we can all do more to prevent food waste by being vigilant about buying what we'll eat and eating what we buy. She says just about anything can be frozen (milk, sliced bread, cheese, fruits and veggies), so make the most out of your freezer.  Also, don't throw out canned food! Gunders says most canned foods can be eaten years after the date on the can without a safety risk. And what about smelling your food for freshness? Gunders says that most of the time, the smell test usually passes the smell test when it comes to deciding whether food is rotten, but that there are still some foods that could deceive you.

You can read the full text of Assemblyman Chiu's bill below:

AB 2725


Dana Gunders, staff scientist in the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a co-sponsor of the bill, and author of “The Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook”