Expiration dates are more important than ever as Americans look to stretch their grocery dollars as far as they can go as food prices outpace wages. Unfortunately, there are a lot of food myths around food packaging “best by” dates, and other label information.
“Among all rising costs, sky-high grocery bills have been especially painful,” reported CNBC on Feb. 5, 2023. “Over the past year, food prices overall have risen more than 10 percent. Egg prices, alone, soared 60 percent, butter is up more than 31 percent and lettuce jumped 25 percent, according to Labor Department data through December. As a result, consumers are looking for any – and all ways to save.”
In the CNBC article, consumer analyst Julie Ramhold noted that consumers are shopping at alternative sources to their local supermarket or warehouse club such as dollar stores, but that items may be near their “expiration date” and that “it’s important to check ‘best by’ dates.”
Confusion Surrounding “Best By” Leads to Food Waste
There is no single standard for expiration dates so consumers can be forgiven for being confused when confronted with “best by”, “use by”, and “sell by” label information.
“Expiration dates on food packaging are a source of comfort and exasperation for consumers, manufacturers, and waste-reduction activists alike. The dates, which usually include a phrase such as "best by," are often interpreted as being absolute when they're not,” writes Suzanne S. Wiley for the Daily Meal. “While the dates can be helpful to point out when food might start going bad, they aren't always accurate, mean different things, and have led to massive food waste.”
All this confusion certainly contributes to food waste in the U.S.
ReFED says that “Our food system is radically inefficient. In 2019, the U.S. let a huge 35 percent of the 229 million tons of food available go unsold or uneaten. We call this surplus food, and while a very small portion of it is donated to those in need and more is recycled, the vast majority becomes food waste, which goes straight to landfills, incineration, or down the drain, or is simply left in the fields to rot. Overall, ReFED estimates that 24 percent of all food in the U.S. – 54 million tons – goes to these waste destinations.”
The problem, according to ReRED, is not only at home but also in the retail setting:
- At home: Misunderstanding of date labels often leads consumers to throw away food before it’s spoiled.
- At Retailers: High customer standards for freshness can lead businesses to dispose of safe, edible food based on a perception that it's past its prime – date label concerns account for 50 percent of food waste at the retail stage.
There is a Reason to be Cautious When Examining Food
There is a very valid reason that Americans cast a wary eye on expiration dates as food certainly can, and does, go bad. Consuming food that has spoiled can have very serious health consequences.
“When in doubt, throw it out” has become a mantra for many as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each year:
- 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness.
- 128,000 are hospitalized.
- 3,000 will die.
“Anyone can get sick from eating contaminated food,” says the CDC. “Follow for simple safety steps – clean, separate, cook, and chill – to lower your chance of food poisoning and to protect yourself and your loved ones.”
Anytime food smells or appears spoiled, do not consume it.
The CDC also says the key is to throw food out before it spoils and has a helpful Cold Food Storage Chart that can help guide you on if that opened package of hot dogs in the refrigerator is still good for lunch. There are even more detailed storage tips for over 650 food and beverages in the CDC FoodKeeper.
Food Myth: U.S. Government Mandates Expiration Dates
When the food still smells and looks fine, but has been in the pantry, refrigerator, or freezer for a period of time, is when consumers start examining those pesky food labels.
“In order to determine which foods you can and cannot eat past their expiration date, you first have to understand the terminology used on food's packaging. Expiration date shouldn't be confused with "best before/best if used by" dates or "sell by" dates, " “writes Kristie Collado in the Daily Meal.
The biggest Food Myth around expiration dates is that the U.S. government requires and oversees the dating: The U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) explains that except for infant formula, product dating is not required by federal regulations.
“Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of the best quality,” says the FSIS. “The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes; however, such products should still be safe if handled properly. Consumers must evaluate the quality of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage.”
As far as expiration dating terminology, there is no accepted standard, but the FSIS explains examples consumers may see as:
- Best if Used By/Before: Date indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- Sell By: Date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- 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.
- Freeze By: Date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Other Food Myths and Expiration Dates
The Daily Meal examined expiration dates and found the following food myths:
- You Must Stop Using Products on the Date Listed: Remember, the date is simply when the manufacturer no longer guarantees the quality of the product. Daily Meal estimates that some food may be good after expiration dates, anywhere from 1 week to 1 year after expiration.
- Food Expiration Dates are Meaningless: The dates can advise consumers when to use or freeze products so they can be consumed at their best quality, and when there could be safety issues.
- Terminology is Standardized Across the Food Industry: It is every manufacturer for themselves when it comes to expiration dates, and this can make the comparison of like products tricky when examining them in the supermarket aisle.
- Food Expires at Midnight on the Date Listed: There is no trigger mechanism that automatically makes food bad at a certain date and time. The expiration date is a guide, and as such, the food can actually start to go bad prior to the date listed, and on the flip side, the food can remain fine to eat after the date listed.
- Every Food Should Have an Expiration Date: There are some foods that have an incredibly long shelf life so they do not need expiration dates. Honey is one example of a food that can last almost forever, but it also can spoil if not stored correctly.
- Bottled Water Expires: When some states required that manufacturers put expiration dates of two years or less on all consumables, then many products, including bottled water, had expiration dates put on them. Water will not expire, but there is some concern that the plastic bottles themselves can start to deteriorate over time, and even leach chemicals into the water so an argument can be made for tossing bottled water older than two years.
- Frozen Foods Expire: The Daily Meal says that “when you freeze foods, they temporarily stop decaying and stay in that state as long as they remain frozen. The only real risk the food faces — other than a power outage that causes it to thaw into the danger zone — is freezer burn.” Of course, taste, flavor, texture, and other elements may not be the same after freezing.