'Use by' food labeling leads to waste, not safety

A new report says Americans dump 160 billion tons of food annually because expiration dates have no real standards or accuracy.

By Bruce Kennedy Sep 23, 2013 8:37AM

Dad and daughter selecting produce (© Katrina Wittkamp/Lifesize/Getty Images)Americans love food, but we're also very profligate with it. An estimated 40% of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten and gets thrown out -- wasting at least 160 billion pounds of food annually.

That amount is close to criminal when you consider what the experts delicately call the growing issue of "food insecurity" in America and around the world  or the fact that close to 15% of people in the U.S. struggle daily to get enough to eat.

A new study says a big part of the problem is the arbitrary "use by" or "sell by" expiration labels that food producers put on all sorts of products. The study by the Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council says a lack of federal oversight on expiration labels not only creates confusion but causes consumers to throw out food that's still safe.

"The dates are undefined in law and have nothing to do with safety," Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic and the study's lead author, told WBZ NewsRadio in Boston. "They are just a manufacturer suggestion of peak quality."

The study found that 90% of consumers dispose of food by the use-by date, "When we just rely on these dates and throw everything away after the date, we're leading to really high rates of food waste," Leib said. "Consumers need to take that extra minute to actually look at their food and smell their food and make an assessment."

The study's researchers say the only food product with explicit, Food and Drug Administration date-labeling requirements is infant formula. They're calling on the food industry and government policymakers to clarify and standardize these labels.

The report also notes that a lot of hunger in the U.S. could be eliminated by redistributing just 30% of the food that ends up wasted.

"We are pushing for a coherent, reliable and consistent system for consumers that can help them really understand what the dates mean," Leib said, "and standardize across products and across dates."

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Sep 23, 2013 10:51AM
I assume the food companies have to be overly conservative in their food expiration estimates because if just one person gets sick, there will be 50 lawyers looking to sue the food company.  Food that gets thrown away costs them nothing.  Food that makes someone ill will cost them millions.  What do you expect them to do?
Sep 23, 2013 11:48AM

The "expire" date is a nice benchmark. It can suggest when that second sniff, a second taste, is in order. Unless you're a moron you can use various combinations of eyes, nose, and taste buds to tell you when the bacon may be going, the eggs aren't ok, the bread has turned, etc.


Those events usually don't occur until long (LONG) after the product's expiration date. For example, peanut butter often has three or more years of good shelf life beyond it's "expire" date.


Of course one does not want to eat food that has turned. But the expiration date on the product has very little bearing, if any at all, on that event. It's mostly a sales tool, right up there with "change your auto's oil every 3,000 miles!" Use your head and stop throwing good food away.

Sep 23, 2013 11:37AM
This is crazy...why do we need the government to protect us?  99% of this is common sense.  Just open it, smell it and figure it out.  We consistently eat food past the dates in our household - it's really not rocket science.  We don't need to live in fear and we don't need the government to fix all our problems...
Sep 23, 2013 10:57AM
It is a sin to do this- - throw away food for NO good reason. Don't know if you know this or not- - but food - - - which  ''I'' will eat past expiration times- - IE canned and sealed- - cannot be donated to the food bank- - -- they will NOT accept it! Now how stupid is that? ? ??
Sep 23, 2013 12:40PM

It's just poor planning by people.   If something is on sale don't buy a bunch of it, if you aren't going to have time to use it.  


Stores that I worked in as a teenager donated all expired food to the food bank including dented cans, store baked items, or mangled boxed items.   There was no waste at the store level.

Sep 23, 2013 10:23PM
I have noticed that my kids (who have grown up with dates) won't touch a thing past expiration. They don't understand that many foods really don't go bad that fast.  I never had the dates while I was growing up so I understand how to judge food.  It would be nice if the government did protect us from some of the chemicals, additives and GMO's but I wouldn't expect that anytime soon since Obama appointed the VP of Monsanto as special adviser to the FDA.  A definite conflict of interest to have the head of a chemical/GMO company involved with our country's food regulatory agency.

Just another reason to shut down the Federal Gov't.  They force companies to date food that is edible so it gets thrown out, just to keep the economy going and people on food stamps. 


Milk has a natural expiration date.   When it smells like bad cheese, don't drink it!    Meat has a natural expiration date.  When it smells like week old bloated road kill, don't eat it!  


Cereal has a natural expiration date.   When the meal worms start consuming it. don't eat it, but use the worms for fishing and eat fresh fish.


Dates don't mean anything if you freeze or can a lot of the food.  Teach families how to can.  Waste goes away.

Sep 24, 2013 2:36AM
Many of them are honest and instead of saying "use by" they say "best by."

If they are canned goods, which is the main thing that lasts beyond the use by date in my house, I'll open the can and taste it first and can't recall a time I had a problem.

Sep 24, 2013 3:32PM
I've spent years working in the grocery industry, and in the process, I've learned a lot of things I wish I hadn't. For example: the Sell By/Best Buy dates on most food items...ignore them. Seriously. The vast majority of food products intentionally "short-date" their products. This usually has naught to do with safety or quality. Rather, in most cases, it's done to increase turnover (basically, convincing consumers to purchase their goods more often). The truth is, most non-perishable goods last months or years past the date printed on them. There are plenty of websites that list the ACTUAL shelf life of foods, look them up, you'll be surprised. Even perishable goods aren't always that perishable. For example, milk (the one item consumers are the most **** about it's date) is actually good for seven days after you open it, even if you bought it on the "expiration date" Those "fresh-cut" steaks and pork chops at Walmart sit in a sealed bag, in a box in the meat cooler up to several weeks before they put the sell by dates on the packages. It's true that we throw an obscene amount of food out, mostly because we as a society are stupid and easily led. Meanwhile, we let millions go hungry so manufacturers and their shareholders can line their pockets even more. That last one is the worst truth of them all. I assure you, if you learn the real life expectancy of your groceries, you'll save money, and you might even help fight hunger.
Sep 24, 2013 10:12AM

This a staged article about food labeling. Expiration dates are not the problem the problem is getting Americans to believe labeling is useless GMO next watch!

Sep 23, 2013 7:12PM
Anyone that has been the victim of food bourne illness is cautious to say the least! It would be nice tho educate consumers accross the board and save some of the food being discarded for less fortunates. The stores like the fact that we dispose of good food as we always go back to their store to buy more so I would NOT expect them to be supportive of us consumers being educated. Public safety is at risk without knowledge.
Sep 23, 2013 7:43PM
If it ain't moldy,  ain't slimy,  don't stink and just don't look bad, eat it.
Sep 24, 2013 2:44AM
Things that don't spoil but do lose their "oomph" are spices.

On a McCormick spices site (http://mccormick2.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/11/~/what-is-the-shelf-life-of-mccormick-products) I found a list of how long various spices kept their usefulness. I printed it out and taped in inside the cupboard door where I keep the spices other than the most frequently used ones on my rack:

Ground Spices  - 3 to 4years
Whole Spices  - 4 years
Leafy Herbs - 1 to 3 years
Bottled Seasoning Blends - 1 to 2 years
Extracts (Except Pure Vanilla) & Food Colors - 4 years
Pure Vanilla - indefinitely
Recipe Mixes (gravy, taco, etc.) - 2 years
Marinades and Sauces - 12 to 24 months
Seafood Box Mixes - 18 to 24 months

Sep 24, 2013 12:44PM

In my home, if it's past it's use-by date and costs less than a trip to the ER it gets tossed.


I've learned the hard way that things which look and smell fine can still make one very, very ill.


Of course this means we keep smaller quantities of such perishables on hand and use them promptly.


I don't think we should be  targeting  food safety as the root of the problem here.


 I think waste in the US is more directly related to package size and advertising, also the proliferation of big-box type stores selling mega-sized everything at very tempting prices entice consumers into buying much more product than they can easily use up within a reasonable time.


Waste is also a function of grocery stores putting on a "show". When stores mount enormous displays of perishables (breads, produce, fish, etc.) it ultimately leads to waste since not all of that food will be bought whilst in its prime and it usually costs more to pay an employee to pack, weigh and label these foods to be sold at a discount than it does to pay an employee to toss it in the bin and haul it out back.


If we taxed food retailers by the pound on all the food they throw out (because it does actually lead to higher carbon emissions in the end) you'd see how quickly they'd change their wasteful habits.


Sep 23, 2013 9:49AM
Shadup! the Federal Government pays farmers not to grow dumas. They restrict the amount of food produced by the American farmer what non-sense. If there's not enough food blame the government they are controlling it, and controlling people by their actions like they did the American Indian get them dependent on the government. Now wait till the American public realizes their in the same position(entitlements) they'll riot in the streets when it all stops.
Sep 24, 2013 6:38AM

QUESTION RESPONSE; "What about throwing Rice at a wedding, having food garnishes, or making designs or art with food. Are these also sins that will damn a person to eternal hellfire?"


ANSWER- - - this is not the geniuses of the article- - it was concerned with 40% / ALMOST HALF of ''ALL THE FOOD WE RAISE'' BEING DISCARDED WHILE HUNDRY NATIONS - - starve''! Your cute LIBERAL analogy falls in the category of PITENCE!  I also believe, Being really STUPID condemns a person to eternal  fire- - - guess ''you '' made the CUT ! !

Sep 23, 2013 10:54AM
Waste a little money throwing away or potential lose your life by keeping it. Your choice. Not to mention the cost of hospital care if you get sick. The healthcare system is already over loaded.
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