State legislators are considering actions that would get more food onto the plates of New Jersey residents dealing with hunger.

A series of bills propose a variety of measures ranging from halving the amount of still-good food that’s discarded to providing legal safeguards and tax exemptions to encourage food donations.

And one measure proposes to end what its crafters say involves confusion about what are commonly called “expiration dates” on items such as canned food. That system often leaves grocery store shelves filled with still-edible foods that shoppers won’t buy because of safety concerns, they contend.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as much as 40 percent of the food produced in the country goes uneaten. That’s about 160 billion pounds of food wasted annually.

Bill proponents say making the labels easier to understand could result in more food donations.

And another pair of bills could reduce the amount of food that goes to waste in farm fields. The bills would provide safeguards for organizations that glean fields for fruits and vegetables left over from the harvest. The bills would hold gleaning organizations free from, in most cases, liability for damage caused to farms during the gleaning process.

Liability concerns have caused some farms not to participate in gleaning operations, said Kristina Guttadora, executive director of the New Jersey Agricultural Society. But most farms are satisfied with hold-harmless agreements, and volunteers are careful not to cause damage to those farms, she said.

Gleaning is crucial to the success of the society’s Farmers Against Hunger Program, which raised more 1.4 million pounds of produce for soup kitchens, food pantries and other entities throughout the state in 2015. About 600,000 pounds of that food came directly from gleaning and farmers donating leftover produce.

Guttadora said it’s possible the proposed legislation could prompt other organizations to start gleaning operations because “any extra level of protection is good.”

As for the time stamps on food items, shoppers aren’t the only ones confused about that those stamps mean.

People who use the food 0404*nws*food* pantry at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township are something bewildered by the varying dates, said Debra Fleischer. Those dates can cover everything from “sell by” to “best used by” to the day the items were packaged, said Fleischer, who oversees the food pantry.

Fleischer said her organization continually educates its clients on what the dates mean. Some of the pantry’s canned food items are perfectly safe to eat past those dates, she said.

“It can be a hard sell,” she said.

Rede Elseaidy, of Egg Harbor Township, was at the pantry with his family recently. He said he checks the dates on every canned good he selects, but isn’t necessarily sure what those dates mean.

“I guess they’re still safe to eat,” he said.

Another Egg Harbor Township resident, Major Drinks, was filling his shopping cart with a variety of foods at the pantry. Drinks said he’s worked in retail food businesses before, so he better understands what some of the dates mean.

“I know the sell-by date can mean it’s still really edible,” Drinks said. “It’s not to be thrown out in the garbage.”

Identical bills in the Assembly and state Senate allow food manufactures to use two date labels.

One is a “quality date” label that indicates the date after which the quality of the food begins to deteriorate, but is still acceptable for consumption. The other is an “elevated-risk date” that sets the date, established by the food manufacturer, after which there is a high level of risk associated with the consumption of the product.

The bills also require the state Department of Health to create a public-education campaign on food date labeling.

“Huge volumes of food are wasted each day, while many people in … New Jersey go to sleep hungry,” said a bill sponsor, state Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset.

With the exception of infant formula, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require food companies to place “expired by” or “use by” or “best before” dates on their products. That information is supplied at the manufacturer’s discretion.

A product’s shelf life generally means the “length of time you can expect a product to look and act as expected and to stay safe for use,” according to the federal Department of Agriculture. The length of time varies, depending upon the type of product and how it’s used and stored.

— Thomas Barlas

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