Report From Congressional Food Waste Hearing

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

“Today’s hearing may be the first time the House Agriculture Committee is publicly engaging on this issue, but it will not be our last,” noted Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway at the recent hearing.

On May 25, the House Agriculture Committee held hearings on the issue of food waste. Based on their tone, committee members sounded determined to use government to prompt change in the food waste status quo. Or at the very least, help remove bureaucratic roadblocks to food waste reduction.

The Committee invited expert witnesses to essentially educate them on many facets of food waste and discuss potential federal roles for its alleviation. The only witness on Panel I was Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who set the table for the others by laying out the impact of America’s wasted food and reminding the committee of the federal 50 percent food waste reduction goal by 2030. She also plugged her more recent legislative answer: the Food Date Labeling Act introduced in May. That policy initiative received plenty of attention during the two hours of testimony.

Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) established a collegial tone for the proceedings in his opening statement. He praised former Ag Committee colleague Pingree for getting food waste on the Congressional radar. Conaway then reached across the aisle, verbally: “Tackling food waste in this country is, and should be, a nonpartisan issue that will be most successful by engaging everyone in the food chain, from field to table,” Conaway said. “It will take the collaboration of all stakeholders to be successful.”

That cooperative spirit feeling continued throughout the hearings in the Longworth House Office Building. In his opening remarks, ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN) asserted, “This is an area where we can work across party lines.” Given that notion, the strong committee turnout —17 members — on a busy Hill morning, and the amount of time spent discussing the date label issue could mean that Pingree’s labeling bill may just have legs.

Various Perspectives

The six witnesses on Panel II had a variety of perspectives on the food waste issue, with a lone exception — the composting industry. But Washington, D.C.-based Compost Cab held forth at the Committee’s Food Waste Fair held in the same room later that day.

In addition to providing information, the panel of witnesses all pitched their preferred changes. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Dana Gunders pushed for a reduction of food wasted in the federal agencies and a need for better data, in particular at the farm level. Gunders also stressed that government funding would help extend the reach of their nascent Save the Food campaign, produced in conjunction with the Ad Council.

Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, indicated that the venerated 1996 Good Samaritan Act needs clarification on several key points because it has never been challenged in court. (This illustrates just how wrong retailers and restaurants are when they cite liability worries as the reason for not donating food.) Broad Leib also noted the need for federal guidance on food safety issues with date labels.

Jesse Fink, head of the ReFED food waste nonprofit, pushed for further incentives for donating and composting food. He also noted the need for further education, innovation and capital. Meghan Stasz of the Grocery Manufacturers Association noted the conflict between state landfill bans and a lack of food recovery and composting infrastructure.

Date Labels, Good Samaritan Act

After the witness testimony, the Chairman’s first query was to gauge support for federal preemption of state law on date labels. Conaway first asked Stasz whether the food industry would support federal preemption to various state regulations on date labels. Stasz’s response was firm and succinct: “Yes.” Conaway then asked the entire panel if there were any objections to that idea. Silence confirmed their assent.

Ranking member Peterson expressed concern that altering food labels in any way would lead to consumer confusion. In that way, Pingree’s date labeling bill may become a victim of bad timing, as Peterson referenced recent FDA changes to Nutrition Facts labels and previous labeling fights over GMO foods and the word ‘natural.’ Peterson also warned the panelists about the danger of involving several federal agencies in determining which foods would need an “expires on” label, as Pingree’s bill would do. “By the time you’re done, you’re not going to recognize the bill,” Peterson said.

Multiple members had legal questions for Broad Leib surrounding the Good Samaritan Act and state date label laws. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) inquired about the usefulness of having a federal agency overseeing the Act, and Broad Leib responded that that would be helpful in illuminating the protections of the act and to clarify some of its vague terminology like ”apparently wholesome food.”

Read the full article in BioCycle Magazine

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