Break Up With Expiration: Why Food Dates Aren’t Always True



Cleaning out your refrigerator and cabinets may be costing you between $295 and $455 each year, and the culprit is a perception problem. When Americans see their date stamped foods as having “expired,” they pitch them; but a report by Harvard and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) indicates these items may not actually be past shelf-life, and perfectly good food is going to waste.

To reach its figures, Harvard extrapolated from a study done in the UK, because no similar information exists for the U.S. It found that a misunderstanding of date labels accounted for 20 percent of the Britain’s food waste. In one survey conducted in the U.S., 91 percent of respondents said they had thrown food away out of fear that consuming it would cause an illness. However, the date the consumer based the information off was not an expiration date, but one that was meant to inform them their product still had shelf-life.

Congress vested the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture with food safety, including preventing ambiguous information from proliferating. Little has been done to remedy the confusion caused by labels. Interestingly, USDA calls attention to this very problem. “Consumers may discard wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates stamped on the label,” the agency states online before providing a link to an explanation of terms used.

The Harvard/NRDC report explains how the confusion persists, adding that few real efforts for uniformity have been established. A simple cartoon carton of orange juice is depicted. Although it is stamped with “use by” the report says the only food product actually under regulation when this term is used is infant formula. The concern is not food safety, rather, nutrients are lost over time making the “use by” date important for other health standards. ”Use by” is of course not a given, and sometimes there is just a date imprinted on an item’s packaging with no clue to provide the consumer how to interpret it. This easily leads to wasted food as people discard the opaque information.

The majority of states have not created a legal framework for dealing with this phrase, or others like “best by,” and a clear definition cannot be nailed down. One company may use “best by” and another “best before.” Legalistically, both are subjective, and the method used to decide the date might be subjective too. Companies can be using taste determinations or scientific tests, without alerting the consumer to which process was used.

The waste per month breaks down to about 20 pounds of food for every American. In addition to money disappearing from the nation’s individual pocketbooks, businesses’ balance sheets are suffering too. Figures suggest that $900 million leaves the supply chain as food waste each year. There is an environmental impact too. Producing food and getting it to the table uses energy and resources. The NRDC estimates that cutting back on food waste could annually save 25 percent of freshwater resources, and 4 percent of U.S. oil consumption. The food waste has to be disposed of, and this costs $750 million every year, on top of the $165 billion spent on food that is wasted. The NRDC states that food accounts for 33 million tons of landfill waste, and this is one of the largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to deal with a growing global population, more needs to be done regarding food sustainability and availability. The United Nations projected that in order for that population to be properly fed, food production would need to increase 70 percent by 2050. However, changing eating habits and lessening food waste could bring this figure down.

The Harvard/NRDC investigation into the matter revealed that “use by” is the peak quality date for a product, not an expiration date. The same applies to “best by,” and “best if used by” dates. “Sell by” dates are another measure of quality, but with a different interpretation. The grocery store should sell it by the date listed so that the consumer can enjoy the product while it is still at the height of quality, which can occur after the date stamped on the packaging passes. Eggs, for example, are good for three to five weeks after they have been laid, provided they have been properly stored. Five weeks after the date they have been laid could come after the date stamped on the carton, but consumers will still cease using the eggs once past the date believing the eggs can make them ill.  A “production” or “pack” date references when the item reached the final stage of preparation. “Freeze by” tells a consumer when they ought to have frozen the product, if need be.

What the dates do not do, in general, is protect consumers. Instead, they create an armor around the product, making it appear less susceptible to other hazards, which do influence safety. According to the report, the temperature “danger zone” is a more important indicator. This is the amount of time the food spent in temperatures between 40 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit; the likelihood a product should not be consumed regardless of date stamps increases with the amount of time a product is subjected to unsafe temperatures.

Stamped date information is key in regards to one product: ready-to-eat foodstuffs. This is because of the danger posed by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria is destroyed by cooking, a step that normally does not occur with ready-to-eat foods. Eating something with Listeria can cause Listeriosis, a serious infection. It is rare, but an outbreak did occur in 2011.

To lessen confusion and conflicting information, Harvard and the NRDC want standardized information to be adopted. The report suggests having visible sell by dates, letting consumers know if a use by date was selected for quality or health reasons, and greater overall transparency. Although most of the burden falls to food industry and government to fix the muddied mess of dates on packages, consumer awareness can change their practices to reduce food waste.

That is an important step with or without Congressional or agency action. An NRDC report from 2012 found that an American wastes ten times more food than a person in Southeast Asia. Food waste in the U.S. has been a growing problem, increasing by 50 percent since the 1970s. Fruit and vegetables contributed the most (52 percent) to waste for the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Seafood came in second with 50 percent lost, followed by grains (38 percent), meat (22 percent), and milk or dairy products (20 percent).

Eat By Date is a website devoted to debunking shelf-life myths, and providing information about when a food really has expired. Users can search for a specific food, or browse by category. publishes a guide based on different types of food as well. This deals more broadly with food safety and preparation, but will contain food about expiration dates as well. Love Food Hate Waste is a website that tries to give people ideas about how to use their food. It includes recipes users can search by ingredient and category, and tips for saving money. Although some portions are UK specific, the broad information and recipes can be used by anyone trying to reduce food waste, or clean out their cupboards by cooking.

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