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Toss Or Keep? The Truth About Expiration Dates On Food

That "use-by" date on your food might not mean what you think it means. Find out what happens when we get too overzealous about expiration dates.

In September 2013, environmental advocacy group the Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC) lobbed a bombshell into the heart of the American food system.

The NRDC's targets were tiny lines of print on packaged foods. They say things like "use by," "sell by," and "best before." These date labels on food were—as they remain—super-confusing. They even include "enjoy by," which seems a little presumptuous, like naming an apple Red Delicious. We'll be the judge of that, thanks.

Forty percent of the food supply in the U.S. ends up in a landfill or a garbage disposal.

Consumers tend to interpret these disparate food labels in just one way, according to the NRDC: If there's a date printed on a can or a box or a package, that's the date the food inside becomes unfit for human consumption. So it goes into the trash—even though most of it remains totally safe to eat.

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According to that explosive NRDC report, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, about 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. ends up in a landfill or a garbage disposal—not in the bellies of, say, the 15 percent of U.S. households that were food insecure in 2011. (The United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] places the food-loss rate at a still-whopping 30 percent.)

Either way, the authors of the NRDC report are clear about a major reason we waste so much food: "confusion around food expiration dates," they write.

Locked in an Expiration Date Stalemate

That bombshell the NRDC tossed in 2013 has yet to detonate. Things haven't improved much since the report's release, at least not in terms of solid legislation. Admittedly, the situation isn't all gloomy; two powerful industry groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, recently recommended that manufacturers adopt common language for these labels. Ultimately, though, the decision remains in the hands of the companies that sell the food.

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More importantly, we're still waiting for a cultural shift that diminishes our fear of past-date foods.

"Here in America, we're a little crazy about it," nutritionist Vanessa Rissetto tells HealthyWay, describing the American propensity to throw out food based solely on sell-by and use-by dates.

There's definitely something unique at work in the American hurry to ditch food. The average consumer in the U.S. wastes 10 pounds of food for every 1 pound trashed by the average Southeast Asian consumer, according to The Dating Game report.

On the Other Hand…

Around the same time as the NRDC researchers were putting together their report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that every year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from the U.S. food supply. Of those estimated 48 million victims of food poisoning, 128,000 end up in the hospital, and 3,000 lose their lives.

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We're not saying that all (or even any) of these cases involve a package of something past its sell-by date. But clearly there's a balancing act to maintain. On the one hand, we must stop wasting food. On the other, consumers must feel safe with their supermarket choices.

The tightrope between these gulfs is where regulatory agencies should work to create fair, safe, coherent, and legally binding food-dating rules. But they haven't, and it doesn't appear that they will anytime soon.

H.R. 5298, the Food Date Labeling Act of 2016—which would standardize both quality dates and safety dates on packaged food from sea to shining sea—went to committee on May 19, 2016. That was the day Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced it. The bill has languished ever since.

The fate of that bill isn't even the most bonkers thing about the issue, which lies at an unlikely and volatile intersection between health, ecology, and commerce. Here's the truth about food expiration dates in the U.S.:

1. "Expiration dates" are chosen by manufacturers with little to no oversight.

So, surely the Food and Drug Administration or the USDA are on this issue, right? Not really.

Expiration dates are entirely made up.

"Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by Federal regulations," says the USDA's FAQ about the situation. That agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) did recently come out in favor of "best if used by" labels, but without legislative backup, that remains just a friendly suggestion.

Dr. Michelle Davenport, who holds a PhD in nutrition, is co-founder of Raised Real, a start-up that supplies parents with organic, unprocessed baby foods and the means to prepare them. She reiterates that expiration dates are completely controlled by the companies that sell the food.

"Expiration dates are entirely made up," she says.

The FDA backs up her claim. The agency states on their own site that, "[Use-by dates are] entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States. As a result, there are a wide variety of phrases used on labels to describe quality dates."

2. A lot of these labels mean the same thing.

Despite the USDA's support of a common "best if used by" label, that wide variety of phrases remains in use. You've still got your "expires on" and your "use by" and your "enjoy by." But according to FSIS, these are all measures of food quality, not of food safety. These are two separate issues, as you'll realize the next time you get hungry with nothing delicious lying around.

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"The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes," reports FSIS. "However, such products should still be safe if handled properly. Consumers must evaluate the quality of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage."

Food processing companies have a vested interest in being conservative with their quality dates. After all, their brand is at stake—you might think twice about Nabisco's quality control if you opened a package of stale Oreos.

"[Expiration dates are] all about the brand, protecting the brand," says Rissetto. "You can eat eggs like three weeks after the sell-by date."

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources agrees. On the UNL Food blog, Alice Henneman and Joyce Jensen write, "For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The 'sell-by' date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use."

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Thirty-two percent of freshwater usage in the U.S. goes toward growing the crops we may toss out with the kitty litter. And yet we've just learned that the sell-by date is often just a means to protect a brand—not consumers' safety. Is that branding really worth such an epic waste of the total food supply?

When we confuse food quality dates with safety dates, the question only gets thornier.

3. ...Except when those labels mean something different.

The only real difference in the current crop of expiration labels is that between "use by" and its analogues and "sell by." The latter tells grocers when they should stop trying to sell a given product, because it might not be in the shape consumers have come to inspect if they sell it much later—see the above discussion of brand protection.

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Like "sell by," though, "use by" is not an indication of food safety. It's just the manufacturer's best guess about when the quality of the product might start to dip.

And there's a reason companies don't put food-spoilage dates on their products (with the possible exception of meats). For most of the items on the grocery store shelf, it's just impossible to tell.

4. Many factors play into food spoilage, so there's no one date on which a product becomes unsafe.

Manufacturers can't predict how you'll handle food once you buy it, so there's no real way for them to tell you when it will become actively unsafe to eat. After all, spoiled food usually doesn't taste good, but it won't always make you sick.

"There are two types of bacteria that can be found on food," reports a USDA fact sheet on food product dating, available for download here.

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According to the fact sheet, those types are "pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illness, and spoilage bacteria, which cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant characteristics such as an undesirable taste or odor making the food not wholesome, but do not cause illness."

The report goes on to note something that seems fairly obvious: "Food spoilage can occur much faster if it is not stored or handled properly."

The most important factor in food safety is exposure to pathogens, which can happen even to the freshest food products in your grocery cart. Beyond that, there's how you treat the product on a day-to-day basis. Take milk, which is kind of infamous for curdling on you just before you take a giant gulp from the carton.

"There are a lot of factors there," says Bryan Roof, a host of Cook's Country and executive food editor at Cook's Country Magazine. "Were you on vacation and the refrigerator door was closed the whole time so there were no temperature fluctuations for five days? Or was [the milk] out on the counter every day with the cereal?"

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Two cartons packaged and shipped on the same day could go to two households, with two very different results regarding food safety. You just can't nail down a single, true expiration date that tells you when a product will definitely start making you sick.

5. Your senses tell you way more about food safety than any label ever could.

It doesn't much matter what the labels say, at least not yet. The best way to determine when food is no good to eat is to do what animals have done since they crawled out of the primordial ooze: Trust your senses.

If this looks or smells like poison, do not eat it. If it's just a bit stale, well, how hungry are you?

"Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria," states that USDA fact sheet. "If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten."

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Rissetto recommends the same sniff-test to her clients when they worry about food spoilage.

"The smell is going to tell you if it's good or not," she says. "And if you get chicken and it's gray, you shouldn't eat it … I would tell people to use their brains. You've got noses. You've got eyes."

We'd feel a lot safer if there were also very clear guidelines on packaged foods. Maybe not a label that says "This will definitely become poisonous in 16 minutes," but something—even if it's just "Check for rot before consuming."

A great first step would be to differentiate between quality and safety when putting expiration dates on foods.

But until that happens, we have a suggestion that should cover every situation: just one label that reads, "If this looks or smells like poison, do not eat it. If it's just a bit stale, well, how hungry are you?"

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