They’re helpful — and confusing
From individual eggs to bottled water (water!), expiration dates are printed everywhere these days. While they ultimately do more help than harm, expiration dates and the confusion they create usually send a lot of perfectly good food straight from the store to the Dumpster.
So here are eight things to keep in mind about expiration dates on food.
- “Sell by” versus “use by.” The former term is intended for vendors, to let them know how long to display items on store shelves. The latter term is for consumers.
But you’ve probably also seen such terms as “best before,” “use or freeze by,” and “enjoy before.” These terms are also geared to consumers, and are pretty self-explanatory.
Just promise me that you won’t treat all dates on food products as “toss-by” dates. Most food is perfectly good for about a week after the sell-by date passes, and the same can usually be said for items with use-by dates.
- Date labels are conservative. Once food producers ship their goods, plenty can go wrong with getting the product safely to the consumer. A truck’s refrigerated unit can malfunction, or goods can linger on a loading dock on a hot day. Manufacturers factor in that uncertainty by planning for just about the worst-case scenario.
Food producers naturally want to ensure that their products are consumed at peak freshness (and, of course, avoid lawsuits). Consider how careful the USDA is with their suggested storage times, telling consumers that chicken or ground beef should only be stored for one or two days after purchase. Most of us keep our chicken breasts or ground chuck in the fridge much longer, with no ill effects.
Flavor goes before freshness. Most foods are safe to eat for a few days after their expiration dates; they won’t instantly grow mold on the day after a use-by date. They’re just not quite as fresh as the producer would like.
Some eggs are etched with expiration dates.
As the USDA explains, “‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees or below.”
With that in mind, you just have to come up with finding appropriate uses for items as they wane. Leftover chicken converts to chicken salad. Bread becomes French toast or croutons. And so forth.
- Overzealous producers and packers. Many food products are actually tossed long before their actual expiration dates.
This early chucking occurs when a grower or packer determines that a product won’t make the cross-country trip to stores in time. Most producers want their products to arrive in stores more than a week before their sell-by dates.
So as a result of distance and caution, our food chain sends tons of bagged spinach, for example, to the landfill a full two weeks before the use-by date printed on the label.
- Wasteful retailers. To keep up their image of selling only the freshest foods, most grocery stores pull some items from their shelves well before their stamped sell-by dates. And almost all food items are removed by the morning of their sell-by dates.
At the extreme end of this practice, it’s common for stores to pull baby formula — the only food item required by federal law to have an expiration date — from shelves 60 days before its expiration date. (That said, several national retailers have been sued recently for selling infant formula that had expired several weeks earlier. So buyer beware.)
- Donations bonus. Expiration dates are a boon for food donations, as they create a steady supply of edible but not sellable food. If the dates didn’t exist, stores might keep items on the shelves until they actually started going bad.
Instead, these sell-by casualties are staples at most food banks across the country. Food-recovery groups rescue these goods from supermarkets that recognize the folly of throwing away perfectly good food.
However, the donations can only occur if there’s a nonprofit organization willing to collect the food and a store manager who knows his company won’t be held liable (under the Good Samaritan Act) should anyone get sick from food donated in good faith.
- Donations hindrance. Because some stores view expiration dates as binding, they choose not to donate items at or past their sell-by dates. This occurs most often with meat and produce, which many stores are reluctant to donate.
This is doubly unfortunate, as the expiration dates on fresh proteins, fruits, and vegetables are just as cautious as for other food products, and fresh foods are the toughest items for food banks to amass. Bread products, on the other hand, are a common donation from supermarkets.
- Use your nose. Trust your senses, not the date labels. If an item that’s past its expiration date still looks good, take a sniff or have a taste and decide for yourself. And keep in mind the fact that if you’re not sure if you’ve ever smelled rotten milk, you haven’t.
Jonathan Bloom is a journalist writing a book on wasted food in America. When he’s not combing through the discount produce rack, he’s blogging on the topic at Wasted Food.