Food expiration dates

Do you or does someone in your household periodically purge your refrigerator and cupboards of food that is past its expiration date?  It turns out, those dates on food have nothing to do with whether or not it’s still safe to eat.  Confusion over “sell-by,” “use-by,” and “best if used by” dates–and the complete absence of a “safe-if-used-by” date–contributes to our wasting 40% of American food production.

From Jane Black, Use by. Sell by. Doesn’t help us get by. – The Washington Post:

Sell-by, use-by and best-by dates do not indicate whether a food is safe to eat, or even if is still tasty. But many people — people far older than Trey — believe that they do: Fifty-four percent of consumers say eating food past its sell-by or use-by date is a health risk, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. A 2011 survey conducted by the Food Marketers Institute found that 91 percent of consumers occasionally discarded food past its sell-by date out of concern for the product’s safety; 25 percent said they always did so.

Food waste has reached record levels. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is thrown away. It happens at the farm, in transport, at supermarkets and in people’s homes. Last year, a study estimated that the average American family of four wastes $1,560 worth of food annually.

Clearer expiration dates on food cannot alone solve the problem. But a new report, co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, argues that revising the convoluted system of date labels would be a simple and straightforward way to slash food waste.

“What we have now is an ineffective, ridiculous system that isn’t serving anyone,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the NRDC and one of the authors of the report, set to be released Wednesday. It costs manufacturers money. It costs consumers money. It leads us to throw food away unnecessarily.” . . .

Date labels come in a dizzying variety of forms. A production or pack date typically designates when a product was produced or put in its final package. Sell-by dates provide information to retailers about how long to display a product. Best-if-used-by typically indicates a date after which the food will no longer be at its highest quality — as defined by the manufacturer. But the meaning of those terms varies from product to product, and even among manufacturers of the same products, because there is no industry agreement on definitions and on which labels should be applied to which foods.

The NRDC-Harvard report makes several recommendations aimed at cutting down on the confusion and reining in food waste. It suggests making sell-by dates invisible to the consumer. Those dates are designed to help retailers manage their stock; they offer no useful guidance once the consumer brings the food home. Instead, the authors recommend a uniform dating system with clear language. Wording such as “safe if used by” is clearer than “use by.” “Peak quality guaranteed before” is better than “best by.”

The report also suggests that dates should no longer be used on items that don’t deteriorate as much over time, such as chips, pretzels and beef jerky (which probably never goes bad). In its place, manufacturers might put the more useful “best within XX days of opening,” which would better guide consumers on how to judge the food’s freshness. The authors emphasized that any language should undergo consumer testing before being placed on packages.

“These ambiguous dates are a clear failure of the law which has led to a proliferation of labels that mean nothing,” says Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and a co-author of the report. “Helping consumers to make better decisions is a tangible thing we can do” to reduce food waste.




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