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No more sell-by date? Why food labels may get a revamp in NJ

Over your lifetime, you’ve probably disposed of hundreds of pounds of food that was perfectly fine. You just didn’t know any better.

reaching for milk in the supermarket
Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ

As part of an effort to significantly reduce food waste in New Jersey, a proposed law in the state Legislature would establish standards for food date labeling, and require the Department of Health to establish a public education program about the meaning of these labels and when food can be consumed safely.

Most people look at the “sell by,” “use by,” “best before,” and “best if used by” dates and toss the food into the trash once the printed date passes.

“I think sometimes when people see a sell-by date, they think that what they’re supposed to do is throw it away immediately after that date, and that isn’t true,” said state Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, a primary sponsor of the measure, which is one of five food waste-related bills that were advanced by a Senate committee in March.

If the measure were to become law, labeled food products would feature either a best-if-used-by date or a use-by date, similar to what’s being proposed on the federal level.

“Best if used by” labels would indicate to shoppers when the quality of food may begin to deteriorate, but is still acceptable for consumption. Food manufacturers can apply the “use by” label or expiration date on “elevated-risk” foods, as the bill describes them. After that date, the perishable food should not be consumed.

The measure would prohibit retailers from selling food labeled with a sell-by date that’s simply meant to assist a distributor or retailer with stock rotation, unless that date is printed in a coded format that the common customer would not understand.

“I think what we have to do is make sure that the labeling tells people very clearly up to which date the food can safely be used,” Greenstein said. “If there isn’t such a date, if it isn’t clear exactly what that date would be, somehow it has to make that clear to people as well. Otherwise it’s extremely confusing and misleading.”

Along with with labeling standards, S3028 directs the commissioner of health to establish a program to educate the public on food date labeling, specifically the difference between labeling that targets quality and labeling that targets safety.

If signed into law, the legislation would take effect on Aug. 1, 2018.

Also advanced by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee in March was an ambitious measure to cut in half the amount of food waste in New Jersey by 2030. Other bills in the same legislative package would expand liability protection for food donors, allow taxpayers to deduct charitable food donations from business inventory on their gross income taxes, and direct the state Department of Agriculture to develop voluntary guidelines for schools and higher education institutions to donate excess food.

“We Americans waste a shocking amount of food every year with as much as 40 percent of the food in the U.S. going uneaten,” Greenstein said. “The statistics are even worse when you consider that over 42 million Americans live in food insecure households.”

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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