Let’s Talk Trash: Berry Good Progress on Food Waste

May 18, 2016 | 12:00 pm
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

As spring charges around the corner, New Year’s resolutions may be a distant memory. However, I said it before and I will say it again—it is never too late to start slimming your food waste.

A new bill in Congress could take some of the confusion out of food freshness labeling. Photo: Kate Ter Haar/CC-BY (Flickr)

A new bill in Congress could make food freshness labels less confusing. Photo: Kate Ter Haar/CC-BY (Flickr)

In my earlier post on the elephantine problem of food waste, I reviewed how America wastes a frightening percentage of its food (about 40%, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council), how the global numbers don’t look much better, how US agencies are approaching the issue, and how a new bill from Congresswomen Chellie Pingree (D-ME) offered some hope in this arena.

Today, I have a few more pieces of good news on this front.

New bill promises to take some of the headache out of handling fresh foods

Just today, Congresswoman Pingree and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced a new bill that could enable big strides forward on the problem of food waste. Importantly, this bill proposes very logical but groundbreaking clarifications to some commonly used labeling terms:

  1. “Best If Used By”: The bill mandates that—if food labelers voluntarily choose to include a “quality” date label (a label that comments on quality but not safety)—they must use the phrase “best if used by”.
  1. Expires On”: The bill further requires that the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health & Human Services must publish (regularly updated) criteria for ready-to-eat foods that have a high risk of microbial contamination if not consumed by a certain day. All foods on the list compiled by the secretaries must be labeled with “expires on”.

Together, these requirements could clarify much of the existing confusion that consumers face. According to the bill, up to 90% of Americans occasionally throw out fresh (and still good!) food due to misunderstandings surrounding the “sell-by”, “best-by”, “use-by”, and “best before” dates. Related unwarranted food disposal is estimated to account for 20% of total consumer food waste, amounting to approximately $29 billion of wasted consumer spending each year. In summary, this bill has the potential to make a significant difference.

The human behavior side: learning to see things from the eyes of a forgotten berry

Reducing confusion on labels could play an important role in guiding the detail-oriented consumer, but what can be done about the food that is wasted that is undeniably past its prime? A clear food label, for example, sadly won’t offer any help in terms of preventing the disposal of a rotting piece of fruit (hiding in the bottom of the produce drawer), or cream-gone-bad (that you just didn’t finish in time). For these types of problems, only our personal choices and attention can come to the rescue.

For me, I find that simple reminders of the huge costs (from my own pockets, and others) behind food products can provide a welcomed nudge to keep my fridge more organized and shop more prudently. That is why I loved the fantastic new advertising campaign created by the Ad Council and NRDC that brilliantly tells the tale of food waste from the eyes of a berry. The ad, “The Extraordinary Life and Times of Strawberry | Save The Food”, even comes in different versions, depending on how much time and patience you’re willing to invest. Although of course the producers couldn’t be expected to fit the full story of food into 30-120 seconds, it’s impressive how effectively they have highlighted and hinted at so much of the problem in almost no time.

(And, by the way, if you like this and you missed my post on my favorite films on food from recent years, you may want to also check out these two videos: “Not Really Expired” explores the consequences of confusing labeling schemes, and an advertising campaign from Intermarché, “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables,” successfully endeared the public to abnormally shaped produce. Additionally, if you are someone who finds that hard facts go down better with a spoonful of comedy, then you also might want to check out John Oliver’s delve into the absurdity of our current bad habits when it comes to food.)

Remember that not all berries—nor any other food product—are created equal

Because completely eliminating food waste is daunting and very ambitious, especially given the business and uncertainties of day-to-day life, I think it’s also important to remember that not all food waste has the same footprint.

In other words, while no berry should go wasted, those that are created with the most harmful practices and that end up in a landfill carry the most tragic stories of waste. On the other hand, a berry that was produced in a way that did not damage the soil, that did not contribute substantially to climate change, that provided a fair and healthy job, and that found its way to a compost pile isn’t quite as disconcerting. Just another reason pointing to the urgent need for more research and practice of scalable agroecology for a more sustainable future.