Policy

Can Congress Stop People From Wasting Perfectly Good Food?

Legislation seeks to clear up confusion over food expiration dates

Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Chellie Pingree announce their plan to introduce legislation that would standardize food date labeling to help reduce waste. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Growing up on a dairy farm, Rep. Chellie Pingree’s mother taught her there was nothing in the refrigerator you couldn’t use in a recipe — even if it was expired.  

“Sour milk goes into a biscuit,” she said. “A stale strawberry goes into a pie.”  

But in Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s home, the fight over when food goes bad is a different matter.  

“It’s the classic talk with teenagers: ‘Is the milk still good?’” he said.  

So Pingree and Blumenthal teamed up to tackle the classic domestic dispute: Solving the gripe over when food actually expires.  

The congresswoman, who has run a restaurant in her native Maine , and the Connecticut senator, both Democrats, announced on Wednesday their plan to introduce legislation in each chamber that would regulate the type of food labeling the industry uses to determine when things are no longer edible.  

[ FDA Nutrition Label Shift Expected to Face Pushback ] Armed with a carton of eggs at the podium and flanked by food industry experts, Pingree and Blumenthal outlined how the bill would require only the use of “best if used by” on certain products and “expires on” for others. That would trump the variety of labels used now, such as “sell by” and “use by.”  

The list of what foods would be classified under what category is still being determined, but “expires on” labels would typically include deli meats and prepared items — things people don't generally cook. Most other foods would fall under the “best if used by” category, said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic .  

The bill would also help eliminate food waste if people didn’t throw away perfectly good food they could still eat or donate, proponents said.  

The measure would also pre-empt a mix of state laws across the country regulating food labels and preventing certain foods from being donated after a certain time.  

Blumenthal called the vast array of food labels and the laws that regulate them across the country a “dizzying patchwork” that confuses customers — himself included.  

[ Congressional Action on Food Labeling Needed ] While drafting the measure, Pingree jokingly offered an alternative to the bill's drab title, the Food Date Labeling Act.  

“Congress doesn’t usually settle that many domestic arguments,” she said. “We thought about calling it the Domestic Harmony Act.”  

The senator also offered his own personal take.  

Like many members of Congress, he lives in two places. So when he returns to one place he often finds food left behind that has now gone bad. Then, the conversation turns to another hotly debated topic: mold and whether it is OK to cut out the bad part or toss a whole hunk of cheese in the trash.  

 “My first reaction is we gotta throw it away. No, my wife told me, just cut off the mold,” Blumenthal said. “By the way some cheeses are better because they have mold — like Roquefort, right?”  

Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.