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Food 'expiration dates' are often meaningless

Confusion over food labeling results in the waste of $165 billion worth of food every year. A new study calls for uniform federal standards.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 23, 2013 9:00AM
Logo: Grocery shopping (Randy Faris/Corbis)Pop quiz: What happens when the milk in your fridge has passed the date on the carton? Do you:

(a) Throw it out -- it could be poison!

(b) Use it if it smells OK.

The correct answer is generally (b) -- but those of you who answered (a) are in the majority. Misunderstandings over what are commonly (and incorrectly) known as "expiration dates" result in the waste of $165 billion worth of food every year, according to a new study from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Center and the National Resources Defense Council.

Consumers and businesses "needlessly trash billions of pounds of food every year as a result of America's dizzying array of (labeling) practices, which need to be standardized and clarified," study authors say.

"Sell-by," "use-by" and "best-by" dates are used for inventory or to indicate quality rather than safety. Not everyone knows that, however.

According to The Washington Post, 91% of consumers toss food that's past its "expiration" date at least some of the time -- and 25% say they always do.

This confusion is understandable, since no uniform system for dating food exists in the United States. In fact, there's no federal requirement that comestibles be dated at all, except for baby food and formula.

Dana Gunders, an NRDC scientist, told The Post that what we have is "an ineffective, ridiculous system that isn't serving anyone."

"It costs manufacturers money," Gunders says. "It costs consumers money. It leads us to throw food away unnecessarily."

'No industry agreement'

Labels you're likely to see, and their general meanings, include:

  • "Best by": This relates to quality, e.g., canned applesauce that's good until Aug. 2014 will probably taste fresher than applesauce dated "Dec. 2012." Then again, you might not notice the difference.
  • "Sell by": This is an inventory issue, letting retailers know how long to display products.
  • "Use by”: Sometimes it's exactly what it sounds like -- if a package of pork chops says "use by Sept. 26," then you need to use it or freeze it by then to avoid the possibility of spoilage. But sometimes the label on a shelf-stable item will say "best if used by," which once again is a peak-quality issue.

Confused yet? It gets better: According to The Post, "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."

Personally, I err on the side of frugality. I have drunk milk a month after its date and eaten canned pumpkin that was three years past its prime, and I didn't die. Not once.

Of course, not everyone's as hardcore as I am. But given how large a bite that groceries take from our paychecks, we ought to demand a consumer-friendly system of labeling.

The Politico reports that Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) has tried since 1999 to get a Freshness Disclosure Act passed. She's planning to try again, citing the Harvard/NRDC study as evidence

"Consumers are unable to make informed choices," Lowey says.

'Reliable, coherent and uniform'

Study authors think so, too. Among other things, they call for: 

  • Setting up a "reliable, coherent and uniform" food dating system.
  • Making "sell by" dates invisible to shoppers, as they "generate confusion and offer consumers no useful guidance once they have brought their purchases home."
  • Adding safe handling instructions and "smart label" extras such as time-temperature indicators.

The authors also call on consumers to educate themselves about smarter food usage. I agree. While we do deserve a less-confusing system of labels, we also need to be savvier shoppers: creating menu-based shopping lists, buying only what we need, and learning best practices for food storage. 

Oh, and making sure to utilize what's already in the fridge, pantry and freezer versus constantly buying items that never get used. Some food really does get old: Milk eventually sours, meats get freezer-burned, lettuce dissolves into green puddles in the produce drawer. And while shelf-stable items might not go "bad" as such, they’re a waste of money if they linger in the cupboard year after year.

Readers: Do you throw out "old" food?

More on MSN Money:

Sep 23, 2013 1:40PM
During Viet Nam era...I routinely ate C-Rats from WWII... I lost my fear of expiration dates.
Sep 23, 2013 4:46PM
My wife thinks that at 11:59 PM the product is still good, but at midnight of the date on the package it magically turns rancid and must be thrown out immediately or everyone in the house will die. I CAN"T STAND IT!
Sep 23, 2013 1:48PM
The dates on food should be viewed as a rough indication of shelf life. These dates assume a certain amount of handling issues such as perishables being out of refrigeration during stocking and handling. Also canned and dry packaged goods assume for less than optimal warehouse temperatures and humidity. If you store food in a refrigerator that maintains a temperature of 33F to 36F as opposed to 37F to 40F, shelf life will be considerably longer and in most instance will exceed the date since that date is assuming a 40F storage temperature. Same holds true for canned a dry packaged goods. Storage in a cool dry place will extend shelf life considerably. Example, a bag of potato chips in steamy Florida will have a shorter shelf life than one in a dry climate like Las Vegas, but they are dated by the same standard.
Sep 23, 2013 2:38PM
Darn..  And here all this time, I've been taking advantage of buying 'almost' out-of-date meats from the clearance bin at my supermarket, and at very substantial discounts (beef tenderloin at an avg of $6.00USD  lb., anyone?).  I'd rather depend on my trained nose and eagle eye to tell me if I'm about to feed my family something verging on putrid.
Sep 23, 2013 3:04PM

Last week I made a box of hamburger helper I found in the pantry. Didn't realize just how long I had it until I pulled off the Box Top for Education and realized that had expired lol those things usually expire two years after the product "expires"....I knew it had been in there awhile, but no biggie - still tasted good...

Sep 24, 2013 1:02PM
I grew up on a farm, and we raised our own food for the most part, meat, eggs, milk and canned goods.  We did not have labels to guide, dates for these products.  We learned to evaluate the food for wholesomeness and make decisions based on various indicators.  The hogs and hunting dogs got what did not pass our evaluation.  I am sure the same evaluation can be made for food today if you pay attention.  Yogert, cheese and the like rarely go bad, because they are already forms of milk gone bad, and they will stay that way for a long time, just trim any part you do not want to eat.
Sep 23, 2013 6:25PM
Everyone is of course entitled to their own views but I am quite certain that most posters have thrown out far more food than I ever have or will. I never buy so much that Food stays on the Shelf anywhere close to even reaching the Expiration Date. Nor do I waste food, my plate is always clean. I bought, I intend to EAT all of it.

This seems to be more about Bogus Government concerns as opposed to commonsense. I see now why the emergency rooms are always full. People will literally eat anything and they are shocked when they get sick.

There are literally folks starving so I can't stand to see folks waste food on their plate. Of course, there are times when Food is bad before you even take it off the store shelf. Then you have to dispose of it the same day you buy or go back and get a refund or exchange.
Oct 4, 2013 11:32AM
Quality Control in America's manufacturers, and FDA,  and USDA, and Environmental Sanitarians, and State and Federal Food Safety Codes are all in disagreement with this article.  Children, seniors, and any immuno-deficient individual (chronic health condition) should not take the risk of eating out of date food.  Bacteria does not die in packaged and canned food, it grows.
Oct 4, 2013 11:23AM
I usually don't pay attention to the expiration dates on food once I have brought it home. Now after reading this will pay much more attention to what is going bad or is just past the date they can sell it
Sep 24, 2013 5:43PM

I was a HEALTHY 50 year old before some idiot complained about buying some stale dried cereal in a store.  That of course DEMANDED prevention!! (The stale cereal didn't even cause a stomach upset; that's why the idiot could still scream "INJUSTICE!".  Eventually every producer of anything HAD to verify the length of time their product was SAFE.  If it would normally be good for 25 years, it would be futile  to wait 35 years to sell any more; so they made taste tests every day or week ; stopped testing, and verified that their product was good for the week; and that MEANT their tests were guaranteed only for that week.  Of course, when all the inexperienced and uneducated consumers believed that nothing was still actually good after that date, all the producers actually doubled and trebled their income level; so they were happy with short testing times!  Being raised on a farm, I knew from babyhood that milk soured. (It made buttermilk & butter) and was actually healthier than sweet milk!   (BECAUSE THE ACID KILLED VIRULENT GERMS LIKE STREP AND PASTURELLA!)  ((AA cheeses begin with sour milk too, and the older, the better most of the time.  SO THERE! about expiration dates!




































Sep 23, 2013 1:41PM

I'm a "tosser".  If the current date is on, or past, the "best by", "use by" or "sell by" date, it's out...........

I'm too cautious, I know, but I don't want to take a chance on getting myself, or family/guests, sick.

Sep 23, 2013 9:15AM
Better to waste a little money throwing away food that might be bad as opposed to trying to save a little money and end up in the hospital with a Huge Bill or worst, lose your life.
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