How do bad dates make us throw away good food?
Have you ever found something in your pantry and wondered if it was still safe to eat? In your uncertainty, you likely flipped it over and looked for the reassuring date printed on the side before deciding. If the date was a few months away, you probably stashed it back on the shelf. If the date was today or last month, you likely threw it away. Better to be safe than sorry, right?
What if we told you that almost everything you knew about expiration dates was wrong, out of context, or at best, unhelpful? Instead of a clear, consistent system in the U.S., we have a wildly confusing one where consumers may find a “best by,” “sell by,” or “use by” date on their food, without any indication as to what it means, who put it there, or if they should trust it. Despite the fact that these dates are nothing more than freshness suggestions from the manufacturer, 36% of consumers incorrectly believe that they are federally regulated food safety dates.
The fundamental problem with the dates printed on our food packaging is not just that they’re confusing consumers; it’s that this confusion causes good people to waste good food — a lot of it. 80% of consumers report that they discard food prematurely because of confusion around expiration dates. Experts at ReFED estimate that standardizing our approach to expiration dates as a country could save over 398,000 tons — that’s over 700 million pounds of food! — from going to waste every year. It would also save 192 billion gallons of water from going to waste, too.
Let’s start by addressing the basic questions.
What do these dates actually mean?
“Best if used by” and “best before” indicate when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It’s not a purchase or food safety date.
A “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for. It’s not a food safety date.
A “use by” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It’s not a food safety date, except for when used on infant formula.
Are things safe to eat past their “best by” date?
The short answer is yes, most foods are perfectly safe to eat after the date printed on the package. Research indicates that the core problem with these dates is the disconnect between how most of us interpret expiration dates and what they actually mean. In reality, they are nothing more or less than estimates of peak freshness. As food waste expert Dana Gunders explains, “the dates on food are the manufacturer’s best guess on when a product is at its freshest or best quality. [These dates are] not meant to tell you it’s bad and they’re not meant to tell you don’t eat it.” So if you’re wondering whether or not those chips are still good to eat, the main thing you should be concerned about is peak quality, not whether it’s “expired.”
Jena Roberts, who runs a food testing firm focused on assessing the shelf stability of packaged foods, puts it this way: “If the food is consumed after its ideal quality date, it’s not harmful. A strawberry-flavored beverage may lose its red color, the oats in a granola bar may lose their crunch, or the chocolate clusters in a cereal may start to ‘bloom’ and turn white. While it may not look appetizing, the food is still safe to eat.” She admits, “the difference between food quality and food safety is a confusing subject. Even in the food industry I have colleagues who get confused.”
Part of the reason that these dates are so confusing is another misconception about food safety. Well-intentioned people throw away food that’s past its “use by” date because they believe old food will make them sick, when in reality, foodborne illness comes from contamination, not from the natural process of decay. Dana Gunders explains that, “a common misconception out there is that we get sick from old food, and that’s not actually true. When you hear about someone getting food poisoning, it tends to be from a pathogen that was on the food already, like salmonella, E. coli, or listeria.”
It’s time for our society to dramatically reimagine how we use and regulate date labeling on food. This does not mean that we’re not advocating for anyone to start devouring questionable deli meat, groceries from another decade, or fuzzy science experiments lurking in Tupperware in the back of your fridge. Foods can and will become unpleasant to eat, though rarely as fast or dramatically as you might think. Instead, we’re encouraging a more common sense approach. We’re firm believers that you should use your judgement, not a food manufacturer’s cautious guesses, to decide if something is still tasty and good to eat. Food is not like the pumpkin in Cinderella — it doesn’t just spontaneously decide to go bad at midnight on the date stamped on its packaging!
What’s a better approach to food safety?
Expiration dates are best thought of as loose guidelines. In addition, there are also some foods for which expiration dates are definitely relevant and some where they are not. Here’s a guide to help you understand the difference. Want an even easier way to tell? Just listen to Gandalf and “follow your nose!”
Seriously. As Dana Gunders explains on our Unwasted podcast, “Your body is very well-equipped to know when to not eat food so you don’t get a stomachache. If it looks bad, smells bad, and tastes bad…don’t eat it. If it looks fine, smells fine and tastes fine, it should be fine to eat.” The research bears out that following your nose is a fundamentally sound approach. According to Sana Mujahid, Ph.D., manager of food-safety research at Consumer Reports, the best way to know whether a perishable food has spoiled is simply to “trust your taste buds and sense of smell.”
Just as addressing food waste is the low-hanging fruit of addressing climate change, adopting a common sense approach to expiration dates is the low-hanging fruit of addressing food waste in our lives. It’s time to break up with expiration dates and start a new relationship with food. The next time you’re holding an item, unsure of what to do with it, remember to use all of your senses and your common sense to give it a fair shot before you throw it away. Building the food system we all want to see starts with reducing food waste, and reducing food waste starts with following your nose!