By Dr. Mercola
Foodborne illness is a major problem in developed countries like the U.S., but one tactic many Americans rely on to prevent it is seriously misled.
A new survey on household food waste in the U.S. revealed that more than 68 percent of Americans had thrown away food because it was past the expiration date — and they believed eating it could cause food poisoning.1
This is a major misconception, as although it's possible to become ill from eating spoiled food, it is a different issue entirely from foodborne illness spread by contaminated food (which can make you sick even if it's fresh).
In many cases, expiration dates are not a measure of food safety at all, and the widespread misconceptions about their meaning are adding to the alarming amount of food wasted in the U.S. each year.
One-Third of Edible Food Is Wasted Globally
According to Ohio State University researchers, about one-third of the edible food in the world is lost or wasted every year, while many suffer without enough to eat. In the U.S., in September 2015 federal officials announced a goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
Waste is present at all stages of the food supply chain, however in the U.S. waste at the retail and consumer levels is known to be especially prevalent.
Writing in PLOS One, the researchers noted that 133 billion pounds of food were wasted at the retail and consumer levels in 2010, with two-thirds of it attributed to consumers.2,3
When broken down, this would amount to 1,249 calories per person per day. Further, the environmental repercussions of such waste are steep, as 95 percent of food waste ends up in U.S. landfills. 4
Considering the large amount of food being wasted by consumers, the researchers conducted a survey to help understand public perceptions and attitudes regarding same — with revealing results.
Most Americans Believe Food Waste Is Necessary to Ensure Fresh Meals
The national survey of 500 U.S. residents revealed that only 53 percent were aware that food waste is an issue, which study co-author Brian Roe, the McCormick professor of agricultural marketing and policy at Ohio State University called "amazingly low."5
Further, many believed there were practical benefits to throwing away food. Study co-author and doctoral student Danyi Qi, said in a news release:6
"Generally, we found that people consider three things regarding food waste … They perceive there are practical benefits, such as a reduced risk of foodborne illness, but at the same time they feel guilty about wasting food.
They also know that their behaviors and how they manage their household influences how much food they waste."
Other U.S. attitudes about food waste were also revealed, including:7
✓ 68 percent believe throwing away food after the expiration date has passed reduces the risk of foodborne illness
✓ 59 percent believe some food waste is necessary to be sure meals are fresh and flavorful
✓ 77 percent feel guilt when throwing away food
✓ 58 percent understand throwing away food is bad for the environment
✓ 42 percent believe wasted food is a major source of wasted money
✓ 51 percent believe it would be difficult to reduce household food waste
✓ 42 percent say they don't have enough time to worry about food waste
✓ 53 percent say they waste more food when they buy in bulk or purchase large quantities during sales
✓ 87 percent believe they waste less food than similar households
Researchers Recommend Removing Misleading 'Sell by' Food Dates
Many of the perceived benefits of throwing away food are not real. Chief among them is the notion that doing so cuts down on foodborne illness. More than 20 U.S. states require dating of some foods, but such labels vary significantly in different areas of the country.
With the exception of infant formula, there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the U.S., nor is there any federal requirement for food dates.
In other words, it's a veritable free-for-all. Food may be labeled with "open dating," which refers to use of a calendar date, or "closed" or "coded" dating, which refers to dates that are written in code for use by the manufacturer.
The latter may be used for shelf-stable products (cans, boxes, plastics or other pre-packaged foods) while open dating is typically found on perishable foods including meat, eggs and dairy products. Even Walmart has taken steps to use clearer date labels.
In 2015, they asked suppliers of its private label Great Value line of products to use a standardized "Best if used by" date label.
Prior to the switch, its suppliers were using up to 47 different kinds of date labels. The new labels are intended to convey that the food is still safe to eat even after it's expired and "it doesn't mean it's bad after that day."8
There are other food-dating labels that you may see as well, and while many regard them as interchangeable, each actually has it's own unique meaning, as follows:
Sell By — Not Even Meant for Consumers
"Sell by" dates aren't meant for consumer use at all. They are there as tools to help retailers ensure proper product turnover when stocking shelves, yet many consumers believe it is a measure of food safety.
The dates lead to so much confusion and food waste that many experts, including the Ohio State researchers as well as researchers with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggest making the dates invisible to consumers.
That being said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states you should buy the product before the "Sell By" date expires, adding to the confusion (and waste).9
Best If Used By (or Before) — Not a Measure of Food Safety
This date is set by the manufacturer to suggest when to consume the food by for best flavor or quality. However, it is not a measure of safety and foods can typically be safely consumed after the "best by" or "best before" date, often with minimal, if any, changes in taste or texture.
Food manufacturers want you to consume their products at their peak freshness and flavor, which means many set food dates conservatively. The methods used by manufacturers to set food dates vary and consumers typically have no way of knowing how the dates are set.
A "use by" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date is also determined by the manufacturer and may vary widely even between similar products. The USDA recommends, "If a product has a "use by" date, follow that date." However, they also note:10
"‘Use by’dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly."
The exception is infant formula — the only food product with a federally regulated date label, as the nutrients in the formula may decline over time or the product may separate. Federal regulations require that formula consumed by the "use by" date must contain the quantity of each nutrient listed on the label.
It also must maintain quality so that it can pass through an ordinary bottle nipple without clogging. Infant formula should not be used after the "use by" date.11
Half of US Produce Is Thrown Away
Produce is among the food varieties most likely to be wasted. In their report, "Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill," the NRDC detailed losses that occur at each stage of the food chain.12 After produce is harvested, it is culled, which is when products are removed because they won't meet certain quality or appearance criteria (such as size, color, weight and blemishes).
One cucumber farmer noted that while 75 percent of his harvest is edible, less than half leaves the farm after culling. No one knows exactly how much good produce is thrown away in the quest for perfection. By some estimates, it's up to half. Newsweek reported:13
"In more than two dozen interviews, farmers, packers, wholesalers, truckers, food academics and campaigners described the waste that occurs 'upstream:' scarred vegetables regularly abandoned in the field to save the expense and labor involved in harvest.
Or left to rot in a warehouse because of minor blemishes that do not necessarily affect freshness or quality. When added to the retail waste, it takes the amount of food lost close to half of all produce grown, experts say."
Most farms end up trashing or composting what would otherwise be perfectly good produce simply due to cosmetic imperfections, such as an oddly shaped carrot or a tomato that's deemed too small.
Raising Awareness to Fight Food Waste
Some high-profile events, such as the Feeding the 5000 event that took place earlier this year in Manhattan's Union Square, are raising awareness that "ugly produce" has a place on America's dinner table. The event used products cast-off from the market to prepare a public feast along with 5,000 meals for food banks and shelters.14 Such events have already taken place in about 30 cities worldwide.
In addition, forward-thinking companies, like Imperfect, which is based in San Francisco, are now selling cosmetically imperfect produce at a reduced price (sometimes by up to 50 percent less). For about $12, members of Imperfect receive boxes of 10 to 15 pounds of imperfect produce that otherwise would have been wasted.15 Some grocery stores are also following suit, offering less-than-perfect produce at a reduced price.
If you see such a bin at your local market, take advantage of the savings and feel good that you're helping to cut down on food waste. Many supermarkets claim they'd be more willing to purchase such produce from farmers if consumers showed they'd be willing to buy it.
In the U.K., where it's estimated that 2 million tons of food are wasted in the grocery supply chain each year,16 grocery chain Tesco announced changes aimed at slashing waste. For instance, it will no longer require green bean growers to provide beans within a specific size range or to trim off the ends, a move that could save 135 tons of beans from being wasted.17
You Can Cut Down on Food Waste Starting at Home
The Ad Council and the NRDC launched a "Save The Food" public service campaign to help spread the word that you can make a difference in the amount of food wasted. While food waste must be dealt with on a large scale to stop much of the losses occurring at the farming, processing, distribution and retail levels, you can make a difference starting in your own home. As NRDC explained:18
"Increasing the efficiency of our food system is a triple-bottom-line solution that requires collaborative efforts by businesses, governments and consumers. The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction; businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses and save money;
… and consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it's less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers."
Also important, learn how to properly organize your refrigerator. Certain parts of your refrigerator are colder than others while other spaces (like the shelves on the door) fluctuate in temperature. It's important to store highly perishable foods that require cold storage in the coldest, most temperature-stable areas of your fridge to avoid spoilage.