Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

The presence of date labels has for decades baffled us into making overly cautious purchasing and eating decisions. According to Frank Yuannas, a deputy commissioner at the FDA, confusion over date labels accounts for 20% of household food waste in America. As consumers, we are the single largest source of food waste postharvest—producing more from our homes than restaurants and grocery stores combined. 

Though consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the arbitrary nature of expiration dates, we still get skittish when our awareness is put to the test. In the face of a looming date, our knowledge seems to evaporate: fridge-side, we ponder what to do, engaged in silent moral battle, summoning up courage that leaves in a moment, untrusting of our nostrils, debating how much a bottle of milk is really worth, combing through our rolodex of negative interactions with food, wondering how long we’ve been standing there. Then with a cringe and heavy sigh, we inevitably say goodbye to our bottle of milk; it looked a little sad anyway. 

Though we know better than to take the phrase “expiration date” literally, we fear to deviate from what we’ve been led to believe the stamp on our milk so clearly instructs. We hanker for a guide to follow; a clear-cut affidavit of whether we can eat our food with confidence. 

I am here to say there is no better authority to provide that information than you. Many of us are stuck on the notion that it takes nerve to rebel against the guidance of the date label. But sniffing out freshness doesn’t require the experience of trial and error. It isn’t a skill we learn: it’s a skill we’re born with.    

Some Background

Date labels available to consumers today were originally intended for the retailer as a guideline for freshness: before dates were stamped on product packaging, they were referenced from a chart as a measurement for when product should be rotated out. In the progressive 1970’s, consumers grew antsy about the lack of information around the food they were buying—they wanted these dates open to the public to help them qualify the safety of their food. 

When date labeling hence became public, consumers interpreted these numbers as a determination for when food was no longer safe to eat. No one was there to clarify that their purpose was to suggest a period of peak quality: something that revolved around taste and sales rather than consumer health.

Date labeling is subjective

  • Except on infant formula, date labeling is not federally regulated and there is no authority enforcing a single standard
  • Labeling laws vary state to state
  • Dates are determined by the food manufacturer, and methods of deriving dates vary from manufacturer to manufacturer
  • It is in a food manufacturer’s best interest to keep their date window narrow, as there is financial incentive for peak product freshness and to encourage the frequent purchase of their product 
  • Shelf life cannot be tied to any predetermined date—storage is a big factor in how long a product will remain fresh
  • Companies will perform taste tests to determine their dates. Smaller companies that can’t afford a taste test will base their dates off a similar product from another company, hoping their product’s quality arc will parallel with that of the other product. 

This process is far from scientific or precise, yet we throw our milk out the day after the date has passed, as if by rule. Of course we do—no one wants food poisoning, those dates look awfully official, and the word “expires” that we associate with all date labels is ominously grim. But, as up to 40% of food in America is wasted while 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure, and since we know that these dates are irrelevant to food safety, it is important that we make a conscious effort to look past these preconceptions and treat our personal food waste as a rare occasion. 

How Date Label Confusion Contributes to Food Waste

  • Over 90% of Americans are tossing perfectly edible food by misinterpreting date labels, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic’s study on how date labels influence food waste. 
  • Roughly $900 million worth of passed-date food is wasted each year, according to the NRDC and Harvard Law’s study.
  • Customers are unwilling to buy products that are approaching these arbitrary dates. When that troublesome date then arrives, these unsold products fill the retailer’s back dumpster—daily
  • In America, over a third of food that’s wasted is done so after it has reached the hands of the consumer 
  • This is not only a waste of money (and of farmer labor), but of our finite natural resources that are used to grow, process, distribute, and store our food. Tossed food is also harmful to the environment through the needless expenditure of chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases, including the creation of methane gas when food decomposes in landfills. 

This fragmented system is clearly not working. Luckily there is some action being taken toward establishing uniformity among how date labels are presented. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a conglomeration of over 400 of the largest food corporations in the world (including Campbell Soup, Kellogg, and Nestle), have committed to conform to one date format. For perishable goods, “use by” will become the standard, and one for shelf-stable goods, “best if used by.” These changes are to be made by 2020, so we should see them already rolling out.

Freeing Yourself From Imposed Conceptions of Value and Worth

  • Trust your senses! Humans have been cooking for over 1.9 million years and have evolved to possess magnificently fine-tuned tools to help us survive. These complex biological systems have made it simple for us to detect if food is edible: 
    • use your eyes to check for slime or mold
    • use your nose to test for off-smells
    • use your mouth for a small taste—you can always spit it out if it turns out to have gone south!
  • Get creative; be resourceful. Open your imagination to different recipes and techniques of cooking. Most food grossness that is the result of a longer storage stint is only skin deep—you can cut off the mold on cheese, the split in a tomato, the soft spot of an onion. With food that you wouldn’t want to serve in a salad, make it into a soup, a smoothie, or a pesto—and freeze the leftovers to get to when you’re ready!
  • Make the most of your money and use every edible part of your produce! Why toss the stems of mushrooms or even the greens of carrots or beets? These can all be eaten! 
  • When you’re at the grocery store, search for the bruised pear, nicked cucumber, or dented carton of milk, as these will be the last to sell and first to be trashed. Don’t buy into the hunt for perfectionism—perfectionism is a construct of marketing and commercialism, and isn’t relevant to growing delicious and healthy food.

Retailers and Date Label Food Waste

Not only does date labeling produce a tremendous amount of waste in households, but at the grocery store level as well: food retail protocol requires that items be rotated off the shelves by their sell-by date. Working at a food rescue organization where a considerable portion of the donation we received from grocery stores was their nearly- “expired” food, I was thankful that these batches were lucky enough to have a chance at the dinner table. Most food however, is not so fortunate, and I came to deeply resent the undeserving clout these numbers have acquired. 

Note: Though grateful families have a chance to eat this donated food, the portion of food rescued from the waste stream is still painfully small. The “excess” produced by retailers that are already frequented by food rescue organizations can quickly exceed that organizations’ capacity to capture and transport; the excess produced by the millions of vendors around the world that do not donate continues to go to waste. There is no shortage of food to supply donation programs: as we produce enough food globally to feed 150% of the world’s population, quantity is not the issue, but the ability to connect this food with those who need it.

Food Rescue Coordinator, Deb, weighs a box of recovered food before handing it off to a hunger relief agency.

Customers often steer clear of groceries on their sell-by date (down to packaged raw vegetables that require only a sense of vision to know whether they’re edible), opting instead for the fresher option. In anticipation of this, stores will cull food within a few days of their date—sometimes even a week or two in advance, if newer replacements are available. 

This is not to mention the mountains of food discarded daily for reasons unrelated to date labeling: over-ordering, periodically flipping shelf displays, redesigned packaging, receiving the wrong item, rotating seasonal stock, fulfilling corporate contracts for shelf space when demand for that product is low, manufacturers testing out new products, manufacturers producing too much of a product. In these cases, the date on this trash-bound food can be a year or more away. 

These internal retail issues are more difficult for us to influence. But when it comes to date labels, we can start to curb the trend of retail-level waste by purchasing that item on the last day of its date. This is both to ensure the item isn’t gratuitously thrown away, and to communicate to the store that there is no need to prematurely discard these products. 

Our Disconnection From Natural Processes

Date labels don’t protect us from food poisoning. They provide an excuse for us to erase any opportunity to question edibility by removing our food from the picture at its peak quality. Date labels protect us from witnessing the southward turn that perishables inevitably take. 

Our reliance on date labels betrays an interesting aspect of our psychology. What we fear as much as stomach upset, I think, is the possibility of confronting fermenting food. 

The proliferation of date labels in the 1970’s came as a result of consumers feeling disconnected from their food. Unfortunately, date labels have left us even further removed: so much so that we are both afraid of merely encountering food’s natural breakdown, and incapable of disagreeing with expiration dates when our instincts tell us otherwise.

I have friends who are so revolted by addressing mold or odor that they dump the entire container of food in the trash—tupperware and all. Though unlike our canine companions we’ve thankfully evolved an aversion to decomposing food, the function of this instinct is to keep us from ingesting it. We are sophisticated enough to get past the fact that it simply exists, and once in a while in our refrigerators. 

In an age of obsessive cleanliness, we—Americans in particular—have grown more and more averse to natural processes. This results in daily showers, single-use plastics, denying that we fart, and a pettiness around aging food.  

I have a better way to remove the threat of exposure to diminished freshness: eat your food!

Stop living in Fear

At home, I don’t look at date labels at all. If you’ve forgotten when you purchased an item, there’s no harm in checking the date for reference—but unless you live with multiple people with whom you share groceries, this should be a rare need. 

I am quite liberal with what I’ll eat, perhaps more than I would recommend for others. But I have never once had food poisoning from the many-months-expired food I’ve tried. The only bouts of food poisoning I’ve had in my life happened to come from just-bought items that were well shy of their expiration date. 

There is simply no point to live in fear of food poisoning. There is no point in having a rational understanding that your yogurt is fine to eat, yet still dropping it in the trash because you’re afraid of “taking the risk.” If it smells off—by all means, compost and recycle. If it doesn’t, remind yourself that the environmental consequences of nullifying the production of both that yogurt and its packaging is real, especially when multiplied over the span of your life in the form of a habit. 

These consequences reside in the methane that enters our atmosphere, the land that’s stripped of its top soil, the water that’s lost in growing and manufacturing—and on and on. Because we don’t see the costs of throwing our food away, it’s our responsibility to remember these costs throughout our interaction with food: as we shop, when we plan our meals, when we consider eating out instead of eating what we have, as we decide whether or not to throw our food away. If you uncover a fermenting meal in your fridge, don’t beat yourself up about it—just compost it and learn from your mistakes. 

With practice and application, you’ll overcome your trepidation and feel confident in living free of date labels. Trust your senses: if it looks ok, smells ok, feels ok, and tastes ok, your food is ok to eat.

The Meaning of Date Labeling Decoded, in the Words of the USDA:

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.  It is not a safety date.  
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

More Resources:

Check out Natural Resources Defense Council’s page on food waste.

Check out the USDA website for more information on date labeling.

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

4 thoughts on “Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

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