By Dr. Mercola
Forty percent of the US food supply is thrown away uneaten every year because of expired food dates, but a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard suggests that most of that food is still safe to eat.1
Labels like ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ on foods aren’t actually an indicator of food safety, as many believe them to be, and, the report found, more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing out food prematurely because of misunderstandings of what food dates actually mean. In short, many foods are still safe to eat even after they’re expired.
There Is Only ONE National Regulation on Food Dating
While both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have the authority to regulate food dating, neither does, with the exception of infant formula (the only food product with a federally regulated date label, as the nutrients in the formula decline over time).
The rest of the food market has no such federal dating regulations, and the end result is a veritable free for all, with some states requiring food dates and establishing selling restrictions based on them and others not.
For instance, 20 states restrict stores from selling products after the use by dates while 30 do not. As the report highlights, are the people in the 20 more restrictive states better off? Most likely not …
Adding to the confusion, even when products are regulated, the rules vary by state and even then definitions are vague and provide little usefulness, if any. According to the report:
- In Florida, all milk and milk products “shall be legibly labeled with their shelf-life date,” but shelf life date is never defined.
- In California, milk is required to have a date that the processor decides is the date “to ensure quality, such product is normally removed from the shelf” but sale after that date is not restricted.
- In Montana, milk must have a “sell by” date within 12 days of pasteurization, while Pennsylvania requires it within 17 days.
- In New Hampshire, a “sell by date” is required for cream but not milk.
- New York, Texas, and Wisconsin, among many other states, have no requirements for date labels on milk or dairy.
There Is No Way for You to Know How a ‘Use By’ Date Is Calculated
It’s not only what happens to products after a ‘use by’ or ‘best by’ date has been applied that’s confusing. Even the creation of the date itself is subject to incredible variance and, ultimately, is up to individual product manufacturers to determine.
Again, while most assume such dates are used as a means for food safety, most manufacturers view them as a tool to protect their product’s reputation. They want you to consume their product at its peak freshness and flavor, which means many set food dates conservatively.
Yet, the food is many times still safe to eat after the date expires, often with minimal, if any, changes in taste or texture. Even the methods used by manufacturers to set food dates vary. The report explained:
“Some use lab tests, others use literature values, and yet others use product turnover rates or consumer taste testing… In consumer testing, some manufacturers will allow for a level of change in quality over time before setting a date limit, whereas others set them more conservatively
… Thus, while open dating appears on the surface to be an objective exercise, consumer preferences and brand protection impact the way most of these dates are determined. In most cases, consumers have no way of knowing how a ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ date has been defined or calculated, and the method of calculation may vary widely by product type, manufacturer and geography.”
So a package of cheese or a box of crackers may have different ‘use by’ dates simply depending on which brand you choose, or where they’re purchased.
Food Dates Do Little to Protect You
The researchers concluded that food dates generally lead to good food getting thrown away, and may at the same time prompt you to eat a food that’s actually spoiled because of ‘undue faith in date labels.’
Ultimately, the greatest factor impacting whether your food is ‘safe’ isn’t total storage time, anyway, but rather is related to how much time it spends in the temperature ‘danger zone’ (between 40-120 degrees F)2 – a factor you have little way of monitoring. If you leave your groceries in a hot car for too long, for instance, it may be spoiled long before the ‘sell by’ date. In this way, the report noted, it may actually promote food-borne illness:
“When temperature abuse occurs or food is otherwise compromised, an open date becomes essentially meaningless, but consumers are likely to trust the label date and use the product anyway.”
In the case of ‘sell by’ dates, these aren’t even meant for consumer use at all. They are actually there as tools to help retailers ensure proper product turnover when socking shelves, yet many consumers believe it is a measure of food safety. The dates lead to so much confusion and food waste that the report authors suggested making the ‘sell by’ dates invisible to consumers. In addition, in order to revamp the food dating system so it reduces waste yet provides useful and potentially illness-reducing information, they advised:
- Establishing standard and clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels
- Including ‘freeze by’ dates and freezing information where applicable
- Removing or replacing quality-based dates on non-perishable shelf-stable products
- Employ more transparent methods of selecting dates
- Increase the use of safe handling instructions and ‘how to use’ information
Coming to Boston in 2014: An Expired-Food Grocery Store
The former president of Trader Joe’s supermarket, Doug Rauch, has come up with a way to cut back on the 40 percent of US food that’s getting tossed in the trash unnecessarily. Next year, he plans to open the Daily Table, which is described as a “hybrid between a grocery store and a restaurant,”3 because it will prepare and repackage food so that it’s ready for you to eat or make quick, from-scratch meals. What’s especially unique about the Daily Table? All of the food in the store will be expired and sold at deep discounts that compete with fast-food prices.
“… the idea here is to make this nutritional food an affordable, quick and easy option to people who might otherwise spend their lunch money at McDonald’s. And of course, it’s about implementing a longer-term solution to the growing problem of wasted food across the U.S.”
The store, which is targeted for underserved areas, will sell mostly fruits, vegetables and other freshly prepared products that are a few days past their ‘best buy’ dates but still entirely edible. Food banks have been doing this for some time, and this new idea may offer a phenomenal way for even more people to gain access to healthy, affordable food.
Buying Locally Grown Foods Eliminates the Need for Food Dates
If you’re like the average American, you waste more than 20 pounds of food every month. Part of this is due to throwing away good food simply based on the date. Another factor is food spoiling before you have a chance to eat it. I recommend buying your food locally, preferably from a small organic farming operation you can visit and inspect for yourself. This guarantees that you get the freshest foods right from the start, giving you a few extra days of leeway before they spoil.
In fact, it was only in the last few decades that food dates were even deemed necessary, and it coincided directly with an increase in processed foods – and a detachment of the consumer from where their food was grown. According to the report:
“Expiration dates on food arose out of a concern for the food’s freshness, not its safety. As Americans moved off farms over the 20th century and grew more distant from their source of food, they began losing the ability to tell how fresh their food was. This was partly because they were purchasing it in a store and didn’t know its history, and partly because the knowledge of how to store and handle fresh food was progressively lost as processed foods became prevalent. Forced to trust manufacturers and grocery stores to supply them with fresh food, consumers began demanding verification of its freshness.”
The best solution, for your health and also for clarity on how old your food actually is, is to return to the traditional practice of buying most of your food fresh from the farm.
Tips for Keeping Your Food Fresher, Longer
Remember, the ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ dates on your food are only a measure of peak freshness, not an indicator of spoilage or safety. If the food has been kept properly refrigerated (or if it’s a non-perishable item), there’s a good chance it’s still fine to eat after the expiration date. Use common sense, of course, and if it looks or smells spoiled, err on the side of caution.
Ideally, however, you’ll purchase plenty of fresh produce, which contains no food dates at all. In this case, there are many tricks you can use to extend the “shelf-life” of your fresh foods to reduce waste and spoilage. I’ve listed 27 tips to make your groceries last longer here, which include:
- Store onions in old pantyhose to keep them fresh for up to eight months (tie a knot in between each one to keep them separate).
- Chop dry green onions and store them in an empty plastic water bottle. Put the bottle in the freezer and sprinkle out what you need when you’re cooking.
- When storing potatoes, keep them away from onions (this will make them spoil faster). Storing them with apples will help keep the potatoes from sprouting.
- Store salad greens in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and add a paper towel to help absorb moisture. A salad spinner will also help remove excess moisture -- a key culprit in wilting leaves -- from your greens.
- Mushrooms should be stored in a paper bag in a cool dry place, or in the fridge. Avoid storing mushrooms in plastic, as any trapped moisture will cause them to spoil.
4 Foods That Are Often Thrown Away Too Soon …
At least one Congresswoman has already announced that she will be introducing legislation to Congress to help establish a consistent food dating system in the US. Until that occurs, following are some of the top foods that get thrown away far before their time:5
- Eggs: They’re typically fresh three to five weeks after you buy them
- Apples: They keep for three weeks in the fridge and can be frozen for eight months if you cook them first
- Cereal: Typically stays fresh for up to a year without going stale
- Meat: If you put meat in the freezer, food poisoning bacteria will not grow, so while it may taste dry or freezer burned if you leave it in too long, even meat that’s been frozen for nine months is still safe to eat