by Carole Jackson>, Bottom Line Health
Open your refrigerator or pantry, and pick up a few random jars, bottles, cans or cartons of foodâpeanut butter, orange juice, cereal, soup or whatever. Most of them probably are stamped with a date that says something like âsell byâ or âenjoy by.â And if youâre like many people, you throw out the food once that date has passedâbecause you assume that itâs no longer safe to consume.
But are those assumptions correct? Typically not. In fact, in many cases those dates are arbitrary and meaningless! This makes it all the more aggravating that âdate label confusionâ is a significant contributor to the staggering amount of food waste that occurs in this country.
Food waste is bad for our wallets, costing the average American family of four $1,365 to $2,275 per year. Whatâs more, weâre suffering a lot of needless anxiety, worrying that what we eat is going to make us sick. A new report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic explains the problem and offers some solutionsâ¦
In the US, we waste an appalling 160 billion pounds of food per year. If onlyÂ one-thirdÂ of whatâs thrown away somehow could be distributed to the 15% of Americans who donât have enough food, no one would go hungry.
Much of that waste occurs when food is tossed unnecessarily by consumers who are confused by the food date labeling system. Yet itâs no wonder theyâre confusedâbecause terms such as âsell byâ and âbest beforeâ have no official, standardized definitions. Is the food no longer fit to eatâ¦or do manufacturers just want you to throw out stuff thatâs been in your pantry for a while so that youâll buy more of their products? Though people often assume that the food cannot be safely consumed after the stamped date, most food label dates indicate only peak freshness and optimal flavor,notÂ an end to any safe window of opportunity for consumption.
The inconsistency problem:Â Although the FDA and the USDA have the authority to regulate various types of food labeling, they generally do not regulate date-labeling practices, instead leaving this to food manufacturers, states or even local governments. The result is wild inconsistency. For instance, a carton of eggs sold in South Carolina can be stamped with a date thatâs up to 45 days after the carton is packed, while a carton of eggs sold in Alaska is marked with a date thatâs not more than 24 days after packing.
The authors of the new Harvard report point out that it is impossible to provide actual definitions for all the date label terms currently in use because meanings are not legally defined. They vary by state, and there is no consensus about how to apply them to different categories of food products. However, the terms generally can loosely be interpreted asâ¦
â¢ âSell byâ date or âexpiration dateââinformation to retailers for stock control, leaving a reasonable amount of shelf life for the consumer after purchase.
â¢ âBest if used byâ dateâtypically an estimate of a date after which food will no longer be at its highest quality.
â¢ âUse byâ dateâalso typically a manufacturerâs indication of the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
â¢ âFreeze byâ dateâa reminder that quality can be maintained much longer by freezing a product.
â¢ âEnjoy byâ dateâessentially useless to consumers.
The authors had several recommendations for the food industry that could help cut back on needless waste, including standardizing the labeling system and improving the use of safe-handling instructions so consumers know which foods should be refrigerated or frozen and how long foods last in different conditions.
But until such industry changes are made, consumers can use common sense to waste not, want not. Obviously, you shouldnât eat or drink anything that looks, smells or tastes like it has gone bad. For instance, toss anything with visible mold or discoloration, an âoffâ odor, changes in texture or flavor or marred packaging (such as a broken seal on a bottle or a misshapen or corroded lid on a can). Other than that, thoughâ¦
â¢ Remember that the âsell byâ date is purely for grocersâ inventory-management systems. If youâre in the store and want to compare dates to select the freshest items for your cart, thatâs fine, as is opting not to buy foods that are past the âsell byâ date. But once a food is in your home, donât misinterpret the âsell byâ date as an âeat or throw away byâ date.
â¢ With nonperishable items (canned goods, spices, honey) and packaged foods (cereals, crackers), safety isnât really an issue, the researchers said. However, these foods may taste less flavorful after a long time in storage.
â¢ Perishable foodsâsuch as unfrozen shellfish, fish, meat or poultry, and eggs and dairy productsâcan spoil and make you ill. However, thereâs so much variability from food to food that itâs impossible to give a blanket number of days after the âuse byâ date within which all products should be consumed. For more information on particular types of foods, check a reputable resource such asÂ Nutrition.gov.
â¢ Be sure to store each food as the label directsâfor instance, by refrigerating after opening, if so instructed. Thatâs the best way to avoid food waste.
Source:Â Emily Broad Leib, JD, director, Food Law and Policy Division, Harvard Law School, Boston. She is coauthor of a report titled âThe Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,â copublished with The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental group.