Confused About Food Expiration Dates? You’re Not Alone

Those frustrating food expiration dates --- “best by” one date, or “use by” that one. One member of your family may want to throw something out. You may think the food is perfectly fine.

Who’s right?

“The majority of those labels are related to quality and not to safety,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “What they’re saying to consumers is, we’ve tested out this food, we’ve had people taste it, and this is when we think it will still taste the very best.”

Much of the confusion about food labels concerns that very issue---their source. Many believe expiration dates constitute government warnings. But save for one food type, the government does not get involved.

Visit the website of the United States Department of Agriculture and you’ll see this advisory: “With the exception of infant formula, if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly---until spoilage is evident.”

Canned cranberry sauce? The government says it’s good for a couple of years if it’s stored in your pantry. That unopened jar of jelly? Up to 18 months. Egg noodles? Two years. Tortillas? Three months.

The Agriculture Department says “best if used by” is a manufacturer’s way of indicating when a product will be of best quality or flavor. “Sell by” is an advisory to the store on how long to display the item in their inventory. And “use by” is likewise only a recommendation for when the food will be at its peak quality.

In each case the government says none of those advisories are related to food safety.

Broad Leib notes Wal-Mart did a deep dive in their stores and found a whopping 47 different food label scenarios.

“That’s crazy,” she said. “Consumers are looking at that---how would they know what to make of those?”

You might want to whip out your calculators (or decoder rings) during the next couple of paragraphs. The labels get especially arcane when it comes to eggs.

Many egg cartons carry a “sell-by” date, which as noted above, is probably intended for your grocer. Nearby on the label, you’ll see a three-digit “Julian date”. That’s the consecutive day of the year, with January 1st as 001, and December 31 as 365, giving the exact day the eggs were packed.

According to “eggsafety.com”, refrigerated eggs stay safe 4 to 5 weeks beyond the Julian date.

With all the labeling systems, it’s no surprise consumers are confused, with many disposing of food the second it hits the date on the package.

“We’re not only wasting food --- which is bad for the environment, we’re clogging up landfills and then people are wasting money,” Broad Leib said. “People are wasting $2,000 a year because of food that they throw away.”

The government agrees, estimating fully one-third of all available food goes uneaten through loss or waste.

Experts caution you should be extra careful with a few items. Pay close attention to the dates on prepared foods and meats from the deli, for example, as well as un-pasteurized milk and cheese.

In an effort to bring some sanity to the process, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the Food Marketing Institute have advocated consolidating labels to just two: “best if used by” for quality, and “use by” for safety.

The GMA says since the launch of the voluntary initiative in February 2017, 87 percent of products have adopted the streamlined phrases.

But Broad Leib believes this is one area where a little government regulation would go a long way.

“For consumers to understand that they’re seeing standard labels, they need to be standard on all products,” she said.

Around the country, so-called “salvage stores” have jumped into the fray, selling many foods which have passed their expiration dates.

At one such store, Continental Sales Lots 4 Less near Midway Airport, shoppers flock to an area near the rear of the store where they’ll find a variety of items which are technically past their prime.

“We guarantee all the sales on that product,” CEO Ron Rojas said. “We hear stories all the time about people who have left things in their cupboards that they’ve bought here past the expiration date, left in there for six months, still eat it, and not have a problem with it.”

Jackie Saavedra is one of the store’s loyal shoppers.

“Especially with the canned goods---they don’t go bad,” she noted. “I’ve got stuff from last year that I purchased, and it was expired, but it’s still good.”

You can download an app developed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and Cornell University to help you figure out whether to keep food past the expiration date on the label. It’s called the “FoodKeeper App”. You can also check out specific categories of products by clicking here

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