How many times have you chucked a container of sour cream or a container of milk because the date label showed it expired? Would you be surprised to know most food label dates aren’t actual expiration dates and cause perfectly good food to go to waste — costing you hundreds, possibly even thousands of dollars a year?
Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten, according to Food Safety News. That amounts to an estimated $165 billion dollars’ worth of food to be thrown out each year. When you breakdown the numbers, food waste costs the average family of four $1365-$2275 per year, according a report co-authored by the National Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Much of the food that gets tossed hasn’t expired. In fact, it’s perfectly good to eat. Confusing food labeling is to blame for the abundant amount of food wasted in the U.S. each year. The NRDC estimates that just 15 percent of all the wasted food would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans each year.
Food Expiration Date Confusion
So, why are so many of us wasting perfectly good food? Well, food date labeling, or “open dating,” is the culprit. According to the USDA, “open dating” on a food product is a date stamped on a product’s package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality, not when it expires.
Except for infant formula, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. And there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) leaves food date labeling to “the discretion of the manufacturer.” While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which overseas meat, poultry, and some egg products, also says date labels are voluntary. However, if a manufacturer does choose to use a date label, immediately adjacent to the dates must be the phrase explaining the meaning of the date, such as “packing” date, “sell by” date, or “use by” date.
Shelf Life Lingo
It’s important to remember that food labeling dates are not safety dates. Rather, food dates are best guesses by manufacturers for when the product is at its peak quality. Food labeling dates arose out of consumer’s interest in knowing about the freshness of products in the 1970s.
The NRDC report contends these dates are too frequently misunderstood by consumers as safety dates, causing premature food loss.
By being informed about what “use by,” “best by” and “sell by” dates actually mean, you can make a huge difference in the amount of food and money wasted in your own home.
Use By/Best By/Best Before: These “use by” and “best” dates are generally found on shelf-stable products like mustard, mayonnaise and peanut butter. According to Sustainableamerica.org, the date, which is provided voluntarily by the manufacturer, tells you how long the product is likely to remain at its absolute best quality when unopened. After the “use by” or “best” date has passed, you may start to notice gradual changes in the unopened product’s texture, color, or flavor.
Sell By: Most sell-by dates are found on perishables like meat, seafood, poultry and milk. The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product. Although the food product may be used and enjoyed past this date, it’s not recommended to purchase a product if the “sell by” date has passed.
Pack Date: When food is packaged. Dates are typically encoded and for the reference of the manufacturer. Frequently found on canned goods.
Guaranteed Fresh: Normally refers to baked/bakery goods.
When Do Foods Really Go Bad?
How do you know when something in the cupboard or refrigerator has gone bad — or when it may look a little weird but is perfectly fine to eat?
While no one wants to eat food that makes them sick, a small taste to determine if a food is still good to eat won’t necessarily cause you harm. In fact, using your sense of smell and taste helps to determine if a food should truly be trashed. Emily Broad Leib, co-author of the NRDC and Harvard Law report says if it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it.
The following are some examples of how long common food staples last if stored properly from StillTasty.com:
Eggs: If you keep eggs refrigerated after the “sell by” date, the eggs will remain safe to 3-5 weeks.
Milk: Milk will generally remain drinkable for about one week after the “sell by” date on the package, assuming it has been continuously refrigerated; be sure to keep the temperature of your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times.
Mayonnaise: An opened jar of mayonnaise that has continuously been refrigerated will usually last for 2 to 3 months after the “use by” or “best by” date on the package.
Pasta/Spaghetti: If stored properly in cool dry areas, pasta is safe to eat up to 3 years after the “best by” date on the package.
Cereal: If opened and stored in cool, dry areas and tightly sealed, cereal can last 2-3 months.
By knowing what food freshness dates really mean, how long certain foods keep, and how to properly store food, you can throw away less and save more money.
If you’re prone to letting food go bad, these apps and websites could help you waste less:
Fresh Pantry — This app helps you organize foods by their food label dates.
Fridge Pal – This app lets you scan barcodes or add info to log what’s in your kitchen. It even sends alerts when “expiration” dates are approaching.
Green Egg Shopper — This website allow you to track your fridge and pantry items by “expiration” dates so you toss less in the trash.
StillTasty.com — This website gives helpful shelf-life and food storage advice on virtually all food products.
*”Expiration” dates printed on food are not representative of actual spoilage dates.