EPA Highlights Food Recovery on Earth Day


April 22, 2016, marks the 46th consecutive year that Americans have celebrated Earth Day. Prior to the first Earth Day in 1970, few regulatory or legal tools existed to protect our air, land and water and ensure a healthy environment for our citizens. The first Earth Day changed that by elevating environmental protection into the national spotlight, which resulted in the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970 and a host of important environmental laws that followed.

For Earth Day 2016, EPA is focusing on the issue of food recovery. About 40 percent of the nation’s food supply is lost or wasted, which results in decreased food security, adds unnecessary waste to landfills, and adds to methane emissions, which contribute to climate change. According to the U.S.  Department of Agriculture, food loss and waste is estimated to cost retailers and consumers about $161 billion each year.

In 2015, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture set a national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030. EPA’s strategy focuses on first reducing the production of surplus food, and then using excess or wasted food to feed hungry people, feed animals, produce energy and improve soil through composting. Food should only be disposed of in landfills as a last resort.

Many states have built on these principles and implemented innovative laws and policies to address food recovery, as well. In 2014, Massachusetts banned institutions and businesses that generate more than one ton of food and organic waste products per week from disposing these products in combustion facilities or landfills. Three other New England states, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and California, also mandate that certain retailers and businesses recycle food waste.

To encourage food donation, several states—including Iowa, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and California— have passed legislation creating a tax credit for farmers who donate food they produce to food pantries and food banks. Conversely, in 2011, Michigan repealed a tax credit for food bank donations, which according to the Food Bank Council of Michigan, resulted in a 29 to 47 percent drop in food donations. Tax incentives for food donations at the federal level were made permanent in 2015, which has provided an additional motivation for businesses to prevent food waste.

In addition, California has attempted to address inconsistent labeling, which is another cause of food waste. Confusing food expiration date labels, which may say things like “best by,” “sell by,” and “use by” can result in consumers throwing away a food item based on a false fear that the item is no longer safe to eat. A recent report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council highlights this problem and recommends a more clear labeling system that would clarify whether an expiration date indicates that a food product is unsafe to eat as opposed to simply not fresh. Legislation that was proposed in California would have restricted food product labels to include only “best if used by” to indicate the quality of the product and “expires on” to indicate the point at which a product could potentially be unsafe. The bill did not pass, but was granted reconsideration.